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BITCH, BITCH, BITCH
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Do regular folks shop at Saks Fifth Avenue?
    I somehow doubt it, and you will too after the opening montage of “The Women,” when a svelte Annette Bening takes a five-minute stroll through the first floor, her discriminating eye registering every luxury item and expensive fake.
    She's almost as dismissive of the chatterbox manicurist: “I have a luncheon at one. It's in Connecticut. That's a whole other state.”
    This is a promising beginning for the current remake of George Cukor's 1939 classic about society dames at war, because it makes you think that Bening will be a great choice for the role of Sylvie Fowler, which Rosalind Russell finessed with wicked glee in the original.
    As in the original, Sylvie's manicurist retails hot gossip about the Wall Street lion who's romancing her friend at the perfume counter, and said lion is of course the husband of Sylvie's best friend Mary, with whom she's having lunch, in Connecticut.
    So far so good. And when we meet Mary, she's played by Meg Ryan, which instantly puts us on her side, because if there's an actress who can play sweet and down-to-earth better than Ryan, none of us knows who it is.
    Also joining the Ladies Who Lunch are the other Best Friends: Debra Messing as Edie, a full-time mom with four little girls, and Jada Pinkett Smith as Alex, a Lesbian writer whose date is a supermodel who's so hungry she eats paper napkins.
    By now the audience has twigged to the fact that, following Cukor's lead, this movie really does have no men at all in the cast. In fact, writer/director Diane English (who created Murphy Brown) has done a pretty adept job at adapting and updating the original, though with far fewer divorces and remarriages.
    Which leads us to the differences. They're not problems, just differences.
    The 1939 “Women” (scripted by Anita Loos, Jane Murfin and F. Scott Fitzgerald – really – from   Clare Booth Luce's hot, hot 1936 Broadway hit) was a bitchfest from the start, and could practically define Political Incorrectness, which is why it's classified nowadays as GP, or Guilty Pleasure. (And one you should treat yourself to at the first opportunity.)
    What English has done in her new “Women” is replace the really nasty gossip, catfights and character assassinations with a much softer story line in which the four friends are supportive and caring and always there for one another in the best Sex and the City tradition.
    Now there's nothing wrong with this approach except that it de-fangs the original's nasty merriment. Eva Mendes certainly has the sultry look of Crystal, the husband-thieving tramp, but she plays her with such nonchalance that she hardly seems a threat. There are a few moments where a little fire blazes through and you feel she would dearly love to channel Joan Crawford as the first Crystal, but maybe the director told her to sit on it.
    And Annette Bening, who is perfectly capable of playing a Roz Russell spitfire, is re-tooled into a much kinder, gentler Sylvie, who has to be literally blackmailed into confirming the divorce rumors for an evil gossip columnist.
    What this does is give the new version an entirely different focus, and for those who miss the original's flaming bitchery, it may seem like an oddly emasculated effort, if that's the word I want. But for those of us who can get over it, the new edition has a lot of fun to offer, not the least of which is the pleasure of watching a topnotch cast having a great time playing sympathetic and funny characters.
    I make no secret of my admiration for Bening (having acted with her in a summer festival so long ago that she was an ingénue, for crying out loud), and matching her with Ryan was genius: their chemistry will give you some of the most genuine emotion you'll see on screen this year.
    It's also a joy to watch the work of veterans who know exactly what they're doing, and here we have two: Cloris Leachman, who steals every scene she's in as Mary's housekeeper (watch her reaction .as Meg Ryan eats a stick of butter), and the wonderful Candice Bergen as Mary's mom, whose quiet speech on how it feels to be cheated on is a heart-wrencher.
    And sit back and enjoy the luxury casting of Bette Midler and Carrie Fisher in a pair of boffo cameos, as well as the work of brilliant but lesser-known talents such as Jana Robbins, Debi Mazar and Joanna Gleason, whom you will recognize from now on, on pain of death.
    A special urge to go see India Ennenga as Mary's daughter Molly; she captures the confusion and frustration of being twelve so precisely you'll think, hey, that's my kid!
    I tend to hold movies that are adaptations, of books or other movies, to stricter standards, depending on my fondness for the original. If you don't trust your material, I frequently argue, why are you using it? But every now and then someone comes along with a new take that's a valid twist on the old material, and that adds a new emotional resonance.
    That's what Diane English has done to this great old potboiler, so even if you're as big a fan as I am of Norma Shearer and Roz Russell, give the new version a try.