Remaking that rousing celebration of Southern womanhood Steel Magnolias with an African American cast is such a great idea, you’d have to work to screw it up.
The team behind the Lifetime channel remake, airing Sunday, hasn’t screwed it up entirely, but they’ve somehow lost much of the heart and the humor from the 1989 Herbert Ross film based on Robert Harling’s play. At every turn, the new Magnolias reminds you of what could have been.
If you know the film, you’ll find it impossible not to think how much better Sally Field was as M’Lynn, the Mother Courage of the piece, than Lifetime’s Queen Latifah. If the rest of the new cast doesn’t quite compare to their earlier counterparts, blame the lackluster direction. But when it comes to Queen Latifah, she is simply does not have the emotional depth and range for the character.
The story is set in the modern-day South at Truvy’s beauty parlor, where the women of the town let their hair down, figuratively and literally. They may enjoy ganging up on rich, mean Ouiser Boudreaux (Alfre Woodard), but at heart, they are a band of sisters.
Their lives aren’t perfect, but these women are survivors. Truvy (Jill Scott) tries to put on a brave face about her husband’s lack of interest in her. And while M’Lynn is excited about her daughter Shelby’s (Condola Rashad) forthcoming marriage, she’s also worried about the diabetic younger woman’s health. Still, she knows her friends, including widow Clairee (Phylicia Rashad), are always there for support.
There was a lot of humor in Ross’ film that’s been lost in translation. The script is virtually the same, but Kenny Leon’s direction is lackluster—where the film should crackle, it ambles; where it should be crisp, it’s too often flabby.
M’Lynn is the broken and ultimately resurgent heart of the story, and Latifah simply can’t pull it off. She’s fine at playing strong, but playing shattered to the core just doesn’t seem to be in her acting vocabulary.
Steel Magnolias has some winning moments, and clearly the cast members are having fun with their roles. In the end, though, it just doesn’t connect the way it should have.