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'First Wives Club': Out With the Old

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 20, 1996

Revenge is saccharine as meted out by the dumped mesdames of "The First Wives Club," a bit of stale feminist fluff with Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn.

As thinly veiled versions of themselves, the comediennes do for upscale divorcees what the femme empowerment fantasy "9 to 5" did for working gals 16 years ago. In Hollywood, it's only about 5:15.

Respectively divine, dithering and daffy, the trio click as old college chums brought together by the suicide of a fourth friend, Cynthia (Stockard Channing). At a boozy reunion after the funeral, the threesome discover they all have recently been traded in for younger models.

They realize they've already paid their dues, so why not found a club? Buoyed by their renewed kinship and a bottle of Dom, they vow to get even with the cads who used up the best years of their lives and left them with nothing but wrinkles.

Justice, however, must wait until the three couples' stories have been none-too-subtly told, the heroines' shortcomings identified and their replacements vilified. To wit:

Elise (Hawn), a collagen-stuffed actress, is furious when her husband (Victor Garber), a producer whose career she nurtured, wants alimony. Worse yet, he expects her to play the mother of his girlfriend (Elizabeth Berkley) in his next movie.

Both frumpy Brenda (Midler) and timid Annie (Keaton) helped their husbands set up businesses before the scoundrels took off with other women. Morty (Dan Hedaya), the owner of a chain of electronics stores, keeps his gold-digging mistress (Sarah Jessica Parker) in the lap of luxury, while denying Brenda and his soon-to-be bar-mitzvahed son the money for Hebrew lessons.

Annie, an innocent who suffers from low self-esteem, doesn't see her stock rise when her husband (Stephen Collins), a duplicitous adman, begins sharing the couch with their seductive new age therapist (Marcia Gay Harden).

With the exception of Annie's lesbian daughter, the film's younger females are viewed as the enemy of the middle-aged heroines and so of family values. While the husbands are so low they aspire to pond scum, a fey interior decorator (Bronson Pinchot) is the only male character to be trusted. Hmmm.

Maybe this is just a coincidence? Then again, screenwriter Robert Harling, who did "Steel Magnolias," might just need his own new age therapist. Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith's novel, the scenario becomes increasingly Byzantine, far-fetched and unfunny as the first wives' scheme develops into a covert operation involving the IRS, the Mafia, the doyenne of New York's high society (Maggie Smith), Sotheby's auction house and, of course, Pinchot's limp-wristed decorator.

Both Pinchot and Smith make the best of these shamefully stereotypical roles, but like the husbands and their trophy trollops, they're little more than plot devices. Truth be told, the starring roles aren't that much meatier or complex. For all their sass, brass and bewitchery, the starring troika can't breathe life into these characters, much less transform them from women scorned into hellbent furies.

Director Hugh Wilson, who co-wrote and directed "Police Academy," seems almost indifferent as this farce gradually runs out of gags and energy. In the end, "The First Wives Club" even betrays its own bylaws. Revenge is a dish not served. Did Thelma and Louise make their sacrifice for nothing?

The First Wives Club is rated PG for raunchy language.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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