directed by Diane English
written by Diane English
based on the play by Claire Boothe Luce
1939 screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin
starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Candice Bergen, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar, India Ennega, Tilly Scott Pedersen
In this remake of the 1939 film, well defined female characters work through traumas, gossip, wear designer clothes, shop, confess, panic, and otherwise carry on like women do when they are together.
There are no men in this film to get in the way and be all disruptive and cooly display their hearty masculine virtues. The women unite in various ways that sing to the eloquence of unadulterated sister power. It’s an estrogen orgy of emotional distress and moments of singular affirmation of all things related to the female psyche. These women are bound together by ties that are occasionally fragile and deeply mutable. They are strong in certain ways as they all have careers that satisfy a certain power urge for control and recognition. They are not women driven by the feminist fantasy of having it all and are not interested in shattering any glass ceiling. Indeed, a great number of feminists would consider them vapid as their lives are instrumentally informed by the desire to be girls with makeup and pretty things that shine or shimmer.
The story focuses on the life of Mary Haines. She is a fashion designer who when the film begins is working for her father’s illustrious company. She lives in a massive home and it’s not clear if she’s managed to pay for it all on her own. She seems content at the start but that changes when Daddy fires her and forces her to reevaluate her life. Meanwhile her friend and confidant Sylvia Fowler learns the unthinkable from Tanya, her manicurist at Saks. She finds out that Mary’s husband is having an affair with a girl named Crystal Allen (Mendes) who works the perfume counter. She shares this information with Edie (Messing) and Alex (Smith). Mary also ends up at the manicurists and learns from the chattering woman about the affair. This causes her to kick the bastard out of their home and file for divorce but she cannot sign the papers. Sylvia and the girls go to Saks and confront Crystal who acts cool and oblivious, utterly without remorse.
The film deals with all the issues that drive women. It’s a secret world that men where men are left out and not necessarily wanted. Still Mary is torn between signing the papers and giving her husband another chance. She struggles to right her self before deciding to start her own line of clothing. This decision energies her and she regains some of the spark that had previously been a major part of her persona. She is revitalized particularly after the success of the show. It’s a moment of triumph that brings her back into her Self.
There is a deeply troubling aspect of this film that involves Mary’s daughter Molly (Ennega). She is a pre-teen who has developed an aversion to food and loathes the prospect of becoming a woman. In one scene she is burning tampons because she is completely terrified at experiencing the biological changes that will naturally occur in her body. She confides with Sylvia who seems to help her through her crushing dilemma. The film does not deal with this budding problem which is disappointing. Her issues are pronounced and immediate and it’s exceedingly difficult for her to understand what is happening to her. She is plagued by doubts and confusions that have led her to rebel a bit where she has developed a goth look and smokes. She hides this aspect of her personality naturally from her mother whom she insists she cannot talk to about anything important. She desperately wants to lose weight because she’s convinced she is fat despite being of normal weight. It’s heartbreaking to watch her suffer through her parent’s separation and there is a scene where she overhears her mother carrying out an unpleasant conversation with her father. She is wounded by this situation and the look on her face says everything one needs to know about her pain.
Sylvia quits her job as the president of a fashion magazine that is having difficulty attracting readers. She is outfoxed by a younger girl who possessed new and fresh ideas that Sylvia instinctively rejects because she believes she has the answers to rescue the magazine from oblivion. At one point Mary and Sylvia have a falling out over Sylvia informing a well-known writer about aspects of Mary’s crumbling marriage. Sylvia confesses that she nodded along to the questions because she didn’t want the writer to publish a report stating that Sylvia is possibly on the outs. The story comes out, adding to Mary’s anguish although she seems to take it in stride. It’s just another distress to conquer which she does after a fashion
Alex is a lesbian who shows up at Mary’s gathering with a supermodel named Natasha (Natasha Alam) who is also a possible anorexic and ends up trying to eat a napkin while looking around to make sure nobody can see her. It’s another example of the often painful aspects of woman and girlhood where bodies become something of an enemy. Again, its not strictly addressed and left as an open question.
Each woman has a distinct personality that is expressed as strong, vital and necessary. There is a strong connection between them which men often do not experience. It emotional bonding that is second nature to these woman and a natural extension of the way in which they interact. They tell each other things, routinely display direct emotions, and share the secrets of others with impunity. Men are not made privy to this world and in fact are often hostile to it when they come in direct contact with it. It’s curious to consider if men who like women find this film to be worth seeing. It does show women in a particular light where they struggle with their careers and men although most of these women aren’t driven by the prospect of a relationship with a mere man. They have exceedingly high expectations and certainly do not want to settle. This is particularly true of Sylvia who cannot imagine herself being with a man who doesn’t respect her position of power. She makes a comment that most guys find it impossible to be with a successful woman. Indeed, these are all successful women who in fact do terrify most men who naturally cannot accept a woman whose career has moved beyond theirs.
This is not a particularly sexy film which works in its favour. The only real sex appeal comes in the form of Crystal who admittedly is quite a little stick of dynamite. She is introduced in slow motion and it is certainly a thrill to apprehend her for the first time. She is the young hottie who has driven a wedge between Mary and her husband. She is also shameless about living off of his money and stressing Mary out to near the breaking point. She is too calm and displays nothing to suggest she cares one way or another how Mary feels.
The performances in this film are all believable and well constructed. Meg Ryan plays agonizingly cute for the duration of the film. She is a beacon of light and photographed so that her features shine most extraordinarily. Annette Bening brings a solidity to her performances. She’s something of a terrifying amazon who seems capable of eating up most men for lunch. She is a tad bit controlling but also vulnerable which is displayed in a scene where she loses control and breaks down. Eva Mendes as mentioned is pure cake. She doesn’t have to speak as she demonstrates clearly what is on her mind with every step. Debra Messing is contained and natural yet seems extraneous to the story. Her character does get knocked up which shocks her friends but makes her exceedingly happy. Jada Pinkett Smith has an ease about her that carries her along. As the film opens Alex is struggling to complete her second book and seems none too concerned about this fact. Candice Bergen is open and inviting as Mary’s mother. Her character possesses a quiet calm that she projects warmly and easily. Debi Mazar is a chatterbox who instigates the whole drama about Mary’s dilemma with her husband. Mazar is a bundle of nervous energy which benefits the film considerably. Bette Midler has a brief scene where she plays a hard talking agent who seems to have seen it all. Midler chomps down on the role and devours it whole. India Ennega has a uncommon charisma in this film. She plays a troubled girl without succumbing to the unseemly trap of sentimentality. Her body language sell her anguish as she struggles to make sense of her body.
Overall, this is an enjoyable film that elucidates the myriad details that women share when they are alone without men. It’s a rare insight into a world infused with complications and style. Fashion and power are both explored as the women work their way through emotionally complicated situations that affect them to various degrees. Ultimately this is a film that deals with the intimacies that men are mostly left out of. It’s how women deal with pain and confusions that many men are patently unable to comprehend. It conveys a legitimate slice of a particular reality that shows women’s strengths and virtues in way that perhaps isn’t exactly typical. These are successful women who have become that way through difficult trials that they have clamored over without being unduly afflicted.