The Women

The gimmick of “The Women” is that no men appear anywhere in it — not as background extras, not as voices on the phone, nowhere. It’s all women, all the time. Which might sound empowering and feminist, except that the women are all shallow, vain, and petty, and their primary topic of conversation is, you guessed it, men. (Also: shoes, manicures, shopping, facelifts, etc.) If this were any other film, I suspect women would be complaining about Hollywood’s sexism and misogyny. But hey, we men had nothing to do with this one. This one is all you.

Written and directed by Murphy Brown creator Diane English as an update of the 1939 George Cukor comedy (itself based on a Clare Boothe Luce play), the film establishes its tone in its first scene, with two women walking their dogs in New York City. The dogs fight, and the women, their faces invisible to us, respond cattily to one another. One remarks that the other’s shoes are “last season,” then confides to her dog that the other woman is “a word not usually heard outside a kennel.” I think that’s supposed to be a joke, but if the word she’s referring to is “bitch,” then I’ve got news for her about how its usage has spread.

And that’s the movie: women harping on and mistreating one another, and cracking jokes that aren’t funny.

The kennel woman is Sylvia (Annette Bening), a haughty, upscale magazine editor who literally looks down her nose at the world and is, at this moment, entering Saks Fifth Avenue in order to shop and to make fun of other women’s outfits. (She pursues both activities with equal intensity.) Sylvia’s best friend is Mary (Meg Ryan), an upscale fashion designer who throws a lot of charity luncheons at her fabulous Connecticut estate. Sylvia learns through the grapevine that Mary’s financier husband is having an affair, which is appalling enough, and that the mistress is the perfume salesgirl at Saks (played by Eva Mendes), which is downright humiliating. There is much screeching debate among Sylvia and the other women in their circle — upscale artist and frequent baby-haver Edie (Debra Messing) and upscale man-hating lesbian Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) — over whether they should tell Mary or not. The point is moot — Mary finds out on her own; her world collapses; retreats to faraway spas and resorts are necessary.

As you might expect from the creator of a sitcom (and an out-of-practice one at that), the dialogue here is bland and generally unfunny. When Alex is extolling the virtues of being in a lesbian relationship, she mentions that “if we get lost, we both ask for directions, and when we watch TV we watch one show at a time.” I think that if, as a writer, the best you can come up with for Mars/Venus differences are those old stand-up-comedian tropes, then sister, you need a new line of work.

Mary’s soul-searching is as trite as the rest of the film’s subplots, and every cliché is employed, right down to the obligatory scene of throwing the louse husband’s belongings out on the lawn. We even get a childbirth scene, courtesy of Edie, because goodness knows we haven’t seen enough of those in sitcoms comedy movies.

In one scene Sylvia has a conversation with Mary’s young daughter, Molly (India Ennenga), who is just entering adolescence. Molly has body-image issues, and she points to Sylvia’s fashion magazine, with its impossibly perfect models, as one of the causes. How can the magazine run articles about empowering women while also running pictures that make women feel inferior? Molly’s complaints apply to this movie, too — how can you pretend to be about modern, 21st-century women while repeating all the old female stereotypes? — but Sylvia’s response is simply, “I know, it’s hypocritical. Life is complicated.” That’s it. The movie tries to justify itself with one glib line.

If you changed the names and added an Irving, this could be the movie version of “Cathy,” with women trying on bathing suits and saying “Ack!” That’s how progressive it is. The thing is, I wouldn’t have a problem with the movie’s superficiality if it weren’t trying to so hard to be ABOUT women’s issues. It’s the trying and utterly failing that’s a problem. If it were just a screwball farce about a bunch of dizzy dames, with no pretenses of depth or insight, and without old-school actresses like Candice Bergen, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher and Cloris Leachman being wasted in dumb cameos … well, it still wouldn’t be funny, but at least it wouldn’t be insulting.

Then again, the film was made entirely by women, and I assume women know what other women want to see in a movie, so … I guess this is it? Apparently? Um, hooray?

D (1 hr., 54 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity, a little dirty talk.)