The Women

Admit it: Sometimes it’s hard to know what wave of feminism we’re in. So let’s take a break from trying to figure out whether John McCain’s choice of running mate makes him seem shrewdly progressive or just a degree less insultingly desperate than if he’d attended the RNC in blackface. Let’s step away, once more, into the sanctuary of the movie theater.

Whereupon we find a confounding, semi-self-conscious new film called The Women, which seems to want to be remembered as the ultimate chick flick — or at least as something other than a Sex and the City also-ran. Apparently there’s just no getting away from candidates and their preening campaigns.

Most of the women of The Women are Manhattan socialites. One in particular seems to have a great life in suburban Connecticut — with a husband, a daughter, a housekeeper, a nanny and a dog — until she learns from her manicurist at Saks that the husband’s been cheating with a perfume salesgirl there. (It’s OK to describe this last woman pejoratively as a girl, the movie suggests, as she’s its villain.) Comedy and drama arise, or are supposed to, as the betrayed socialite and her friends cope with the betrayal, and the betrayer’s absence becomes increasingly conspicuous.

In fact, not a single penis bearer appears in this entire film, unless we count the baby who arrives at the very end. And don’t say that’s a spoiler: Was the movie not disclaimed two paragraphs ago as a striving chick flick? Indeed, the cathartic birthing scene comes right after the triumphant fashion-show scene. Seriously. And although men figure prominently in much of The Women’s machinations (whatever wave we’re in, certain biological functions have yet to be obviated), the point is that they’ve had their turn, and this movie isn’t it. (Maybe Glengarry Glen Ross was their turn.)

Is it disempowering, then, to know that The Women already was a film, nearly 70 years ago, and that its director then was a man? Or that George Cukor’s 1939 version, however variously dated it is, remains somehow, pound for pound, less condescending than this new one?

Probably the main source of the disappointment is the fact that the original play, by Clare Boothe Luce, pitilessly satirized its socialites, whereas our latest adaptation coddles them. It was written and directed — in her feature debut — by Diane English, the creator of Murphy Brown. It stars Meg Ryan (typical), Annette Bening (uneven), Eva Mendes (boring), Debra Messing (shticky), Jada Pinkett Smith (lost), Cloris Leachman (sharp), Candice Bergen (savory), Bette Middler (jovial), Carrie Fisher (banal) and Debi Mazar (grating).

That’s a lot of names. Here are some more.

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), Sarah Polley (Away From Her), Jessica Yu (Ping Pong Playa), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette), Asia Argento (The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things), Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table), Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa), Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of Hell). And there are more where these come from, which is all over the world. These are female filmmakers who can be counted on to make better, less equivocally feminist movies than The Women. Let’s encourage their efforts instead.