In a sense, The Women is the ultimate chick flick—men are discussed, chewed out, lauded, and lambasted, but the only one who makes an appearance is a tiny newborn boy. No other male actors appear onscreen at any time, not even as extras. And that's what constitutes this film's biggest departure from standard chick-flick fare; no charming male leads are around to romance the audience, and there's little of the fairy tale to be found. Each of the women lives in the strange-but-true world of uppercrust New York society—one where a session at Saks Fifth Avenue with Madonna's manicurist is simply something to do while waiting for your hair appointment—but like "real" people, they have strengths, failures, children, messes, and job problems, and only their friends to help sort it all out.
Sylvia (Annette Bening) is a high-flying magazine editor in Manhattan. Mary (Meg Ryan), her best friend, is married to a prominent Wall Street executive, designs clothes for her father's company, and lives in Connecticut with her family, a wisecracking housekeeper, and the Danish nanny. Edie (Debra Messing), of a flightier disposition, has four children and one on the way, and Jada Pinkett Smith is a vaguely misanthropic nocturnal essayist with a nasty supermodel for a girlfriend.
When they discover that Mary's husband is having an affair with Crystal (Eva Mendes)—a seductive perfume "spray-girl" at Saks Fifth Avenue whom he met when buying a gift for Mary—the marriage disintegrates. And when Mary is betrayed by a friend, her life spirals into depression. She is too wrapped up in her troubles to be present with her pre-teen daughter, who turns elsewhere for comfort and acceptance. It is only while on a retreat in the woods that Mary recognizes the direction her life has taken, and resolves to change it for the better—with a little help from her friends.
Most of the dialogue is fast-paced and chuckle-inducing, with a wink to the story's past incarnations, though it grows stilted in several scenes of advice-giving. The Women is based on a celebrated 1939 film (eliciting the heartiest audience laugh when Meg Ryan sputters at her mother, "What do you think this is? A movie from the 1930s?"), which was in turn based on a play by Claire Boothe Luce. (All three versions employ the all-female casting.) The original starred a bevy of well-known actresses, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, and this one has a similar proliferation of today's female talent, though the perky talkiness of the remake seems a little out of place in today's cinema. And let's not forget the wardrobe—an essential component of this kind of film—which, mercifully, holds up even in this post-Sex and the City world.
There are a lot of good lessons to be learned from The Women: Fight for your relationships. Don't betray your friends to get ahead. Pay attention to your children. People are more important than jobs. The central theme, somewhat unimaginatively, is the now well-worn adage to be true to yourself.