In 1936 when

The Women

bounded onto Broadway, Clare Boothe Luce's merciless suggestion that the parlors of Park Avenue are kennels for female dogs struck one observer as so acidic that it "could turn litmus paper pink."

For Luce, as for Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, who adapted the gossip-girl comedy into the 1939 film classic, the idea of "female friendship" was practically an oxymoron.

Not so Diane English's intermittently amusing update starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Jada Pinkett Smith, acid-balanced as a salon shampoo.

In English's version, fidelity among friends is as important - perhaps more so - than that between spouses. So, instead of characterizing its central figure, Mary Haines (Ryan), as an innocent pup amid the attack canines, English takes the more optimistic view that even rabid middle-aged dogs can learn new tricks - like obedience to friends.

Nice message, if one with considerably less bite than the source material. English has taken Luce's insight that for women, friendship can be a lethal weapon, and blunted it in the warm bath of self-help.

And because Luce's account of how women behave in men-free zones prefigured Sex and the City, that effervescent TV and movie phenom also makes English's remix seem a tad flat. Maybe it's the watered-down, sitcommy direction (this marks the directorial debut of English, creator of Murphy Brown) that dilutes this cocktail's fizz.

The distinction between the upscale milieus of SATC and The Women may seem subtle. But in their niche universes, SATC is an edgy 35, drinks Mojitos, reads Vogue, and shops Bergdorfs; The Women is a centered 48, sips martinis, rips into O, and haunts Saks.

It is fair to say that Saks is to The Women what the Sistine Chapel is to The Agony and the Ecstasy - a sacred place for prayer, communion and confession.

At the salon of the Fifth Avenue fashion emporium, married Mary (Ryan, tossing her ringlets like a bowl of fusilli) learns from a chatty manicurist that her husband, Steven, is dallying with sultry Saks perfume spritzer Crystal (Eva Mendes).

Her friends, Sylvie (Bening), a magazine editor; Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), a novelist; and Edie (Debra Messing), an earthy mama, already have heard the news.

As Mary's sharp-tongued pals deliberate how to break it to her, they can't help but savor this juicy morsel of ill fortune. A fashion designer with a Connecticut estate, adorable daughter and Wall Street spouse, Mary has the Olympian life they all wanted but, being mere mortals, never got.

If her gal pals aren't happy, exactly, at the prospect of Mary's humiliation, they are secretly pleased that in her misery she is rendered mortal like them. And when Mary finds that one of them has confirmed her marital blitz to a New York tabloid, it leads to an estrangement as painful as that from her husband.

English wrangles her talent like a virtuoso. Best is Murphy Brown herself, Candice Bergen, as Mary's mother, Catherine, who counsels forgiveness when others counsel revenge. Also quite fine in a movie where the piquant sides are tastier than the bland main dish, is Bening, whose Sylvie reveals more than one dimension.

Ryan has the thankless task of delivering the film's sapless homily: Knowing what you want is the key to personal and professional happiness. (She is in excellent company. Mary Haines is a role that defeated both Norma Shearer - in 1939's The Women - and June Allyson - in the 1957 music remake, The Opposite Sex.)

In writing this I feel like a hung jury. My final verdict on The Women: Enjoyed, not overjoyed.

The Women **1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Diane English (adapted from the Clare Boothe Luce play and 1939 film). With Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith. Distributed by Picturehouse.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex-related material, brief drug use)

Playing at: area theaters