3 Stars — Thought-provoking
Applying the familiar formulae of four female friends sharing life, Diane English both writes and directs The Women. As a writer for the television series Murphy Brown, this is the first feature film either directed or written by English and it is based on a play by Clare Boothe Luce. The result is mixed. The chemistry between the ensemble cast is uneven but the story has more depth than is often found in such films. The four middle-aged women around whom the story revolves are not primarily talking about sex, as you find in the Sex in the City foursome. Rather they are sharing the full spectrum of the joys and sorrows of life, family, marriage and career.
The four friends are anchored around the closer friendship of Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) and Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening). Best friends since college, Mary is a dress designer who works for her father and Sylvia is the editor of a women’s magazine. Rounding out their group is Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Edie Cohen (Debra Messing). Alex is the culturally fashionable lesbian friend while Edie is the stereotypical stay-at-home earth mother with many daughters.
True to its title, the cast consists of all women. Even though the movement of the tale is caused by the affair that Mary’s husband is having with the “spritzer girl” at Saks Fifth Avenue, Crystal Allen (Eva Mendez), we never see him onscreen. Instead we see his daughter, Molly (India Ennenga); her nanny, Uta (Tilly Scott Pedersen); and their housekeeper, Maggie (Cloris Leachman). Comic in both style and purpose, their presence in the film is not well developed. The exception to the shallow relationships shown in the film is the relationship that Molly develops with Sylvia during the fallout from the affair’s disruptive effect on the Haines home.
The struggle with betrayal is the central theme, not only in discovering the affair but also in dealing with the subsequent actions of a member of the ensemble. This struggle is described eloquently by Mary’s mother, Catherine Frazer (Candice Bergen), as the debilitating feeling that “no one is who they appear to be” and that “we lose our ability to trust anyone.” Advising her daughter to “tell no one,” this denial is often our instinctual response to such a shocking blow. But this decision isolates us from the friends and counselors who can help us heal the pain if not the relationship.
The secondary struggle that is explored is that of finding who we are when the structures that defined us are removed. As Mary’s role as a wife is removed, she is forced to spend the necessary energy and time to redefine who she is. This loss then becomes an impetus for growth, although it is a difficult path to walk.
The Women is a story about the relationships women share in a complex world. The film attempts to portray these women’s friendships, mother-daughter relationships and personal motivations with authenticity and wit. Although this film is only partially successful, its subject is worth the exploration.
» The importance of sharing life with supportive, trustworthy friends is obvious. Do you have friends you can trust in your life? Have you been betrayed by a friend? If so, where did you turn to get the help you needed to heal this injury? Was your friendship restored?
» The inability of Mary to see her daughter’s pain over her separation is fairly typical. If you had been Sylvia, would you have stepped in to help Molly without Mary’s knowledge? How else could you have helped Molly?
» Mary’s mother, Catherine, has been through this before. Do you agree with how she handled her husband’s betrayal in her own life? Why do you answer as you do? Was the support and advice she offered helpful in Mary’s life? If not, why not?
» The decision to turn to revenge and manipulate the situation seems to work for Mary. Would you use such a technique to try to regain your marriage?
» The lack of empathy that Crystal exhibits toward Mary is chilling. Do you think this is common behavior for a mistress? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.