How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Bette Midler. Directed by Diane English.
Running Time: 114 mins
Rated: Rated PG (mild sexual references, coarse language and drug references)

Dusting off George Cukor's all-star, all-female 1939 comedy and making some judicious changes, writer-director Diane English comes up with an entertaining all-star, all-female comedy that is a good fit for the 2000s. She retains all the best wisecracks and many of the earlier film's set pieces, but her Women is - to quote another MGM hit of 1939 - a horse of a different colour.

Cukor's film, like the Clare Boothe play on which it was based, was a brittle, waspish put-down of wealthy Manhattan society women who had nothing better to do than gossip maliciously and revel in any misfortune that might befall one of their number. English's adaptation of the original Anita Loos/Jane Murfin screenplay is much warmer and, taking into account the different situation of women today compared to the 1930s, it remixes the ingredients to make it more believable, less a caricature.

For example, the scene in which the women in the 1930s went off to Reno to establish residency for their quickie divorces now becomes a visit to a trendy health clinic, and the fashion parade, which had no relevance in the first film apart from satirising fashion and showing society ladies indulging themselves, is neatly worked into proceedings by having the pivotal character Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) be an aspiring dress designer.

Mary (the role played by Norma Shearer in 1939) is a sweet, decent, loyal wife to Wall St tycoon Stephen Haines and mother to 12-year-old Molly. She enjoys her life and believes she has a happy marriage. But her magazine-editor friend Sylvia (Annette Bening) learns from a blabbermouth manicurist at Saks Fifth Avenue that Stephen has been unfaithful with Crystal (Eva Mendes), a golddigger who works at the store's perfume counter.

Sylvia can't wait to tell their mutual friend Edie (Debra Messing) the terrible news, and before long all Mary's circle knows what is going on. Mary finds out, too, by innocently visiting the same manicurist. Her mother (Candice Bergen) advises her to sit tight and wait for the infidelity to run its course, but Sylvia pushes Mary into a confrontation with the tarty Crystal, and then betrays her friend by letting slip to a gossip columnist and the Haines are splashed all over the papers.

As Mary's mother wryly observes: "Incredible isn't it - how a little piece of gossip has the ability to unravel an entire career?'

Mary's struggle to deal with the situation shows the effect on her, her daughter, her friends and everyone, really, except the men in their lives: true to the first film and the play, there are no males anywhere to be seen. The film shows the undermining effects of gossip mongering, but it is also a celebration of female camaraderie and, ultimately, the positive power of love (though cynics may think that a cop-out).

It's a strong cast, with Ryan very appealing as Mary and Debra Messing a delight as Edie, her friend with a penchant for children (a labour ward scene in which Mary & Co assist as Edie hilariously brings forth a new babe is the film's funniest). Bette Midler is a scene-stealer in a cameo as a crusty Hollywood agent on her fifth divorce, and Annette Bening is smoothly stylish as the career-minded Sylvia, wedded to her Blackberry, although the movie might have been better if she had been able to match the sheer freewheeling bitchiness that Rosalind Russell brought to the role 69 years ago. Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman and Jada Pinkett Smith also show out.

The script has many funny lines, and when the final credits finish rolling the leading actresses briefly contribute their thoughts on what it means to be a woman - an unusual touch.

Hopscotch Out October 23

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting

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