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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 09/19/1996, B: Peter Keough,


The First Wives Club only beats itself up

by Peter Keough

THE FIRST WIVES CLUB. Directed by Hugh Wilson. Written by Robert Harling based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith. With Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Maggie Smith, Dan Hedaya, Bronson Pinchot, Jennifer Dundas, Eileen Heckart, Stephen Collins, Victor Garber, Elizabeth Berkley, Marcia Gay Harden, and Philip Bosco. A Paramount Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

An unholy fusion of Girls Town and Death Becomes Her, The First Wives Club poses as a male-bashing feminist tract but is in fact a female-bashing exercise in misogyny and self-loathing. Three high-school friends from the class of 1969 -- which here looks in flashback like 1959, just the first of countless false notes -- find themselves in the '90s left high and dry by their husbands for much younger babes. Stung by the suicide of another classmate who had suffered a similar fate (Stockard Channing, whose performance consists of stumbling toward a railing in a nightgown and mink coat with a tumbler of gin in her hand), the three are inspired to fight back, so they bond to form the title club and vow to hound their exes to hell. Rich, spoiled, unproductive, and complaining -- how can we help but sympathize with them?

Goldie Hawn is Elise, the stellar success of the trio. She's a Oscar-winning actress pushing 50 who blows up her lips with collagen to the size of a wading pool in a desperate effort to get work -- it's a virtual replay of her part in the equally loathsome though more amusing Death Becomes Her. "There are three ages in Hollywood," she tells her cosmetic surgeon, who's played, in a meaningless cameo, by Rob Reiner. "Babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." Elise starts hitting the self-pity and the vodka in earnest when her producer/partner/husband, Bill (Victor Garber), shacks up with an actress in the "babe" stage (Elizabeth Berkley, confirming her failure in Showgirls) and threatens her with a larcenous divorce settlement.

Trite and mean-spirited though Elise is, Hawn's performance is one of the film's few grace notes. She's the least strident and self-righteous of the club and really has fun with her sloshed outrageousness and unapologetic narcissism. Bette Midler's Brenda, on the other hand, is a charmless troll. After giving the requisite best years of her life to her husband, Morty (Dan Hedaya, solid in a thankless role), not to mention the seed money for his successful electronics store, she finds herself replaced by svelte, greedy, blowzy Shelley (Sarah Jessica Parker). She's reduced to badgering her son about his bar mitzvah and delivering some of the film's more hateful barbs about Parker's "Little Miss Midriff." Still, she's more appealing than Diane Keaton, who is at her most excruciatingly whiny as Annie, a woman who's crushed when she realizes hubby Aaron (Stephen Collins) is sleeping with her therapist.

Not an ironic and original narrative twist. Still, it's riveting compared to the club's convoluted revenge plot -- a scheme involving buying and selling properties and half-hearted espionage. It's about as much fun as having your taxes audited. Understandably the ladies' interest flags and they turn their tongues and talons on one another. It's the film's most disturbing and funniest scene, and its truest, as first Hawn and Midler and then the insufferably inoffensive Keaton let their self-hatred loose, lacerating their PC façades and exposing the pathology beneath. It's a brief reprieve; the film quickly returns to breathless hypocrisy, as the three focus their vindictive efforts on obtaining funding for a "Woman's Crisis Center," apparently for women like themselves with too much time and money on their hands.

As you might expect from the creator of Police Academy, director Hugh Wilson seems befuddled whenever the script trips over a funny line of dialogue. There is some comic relief with Bronson Pinchot, who's elegantly swish and witty as an interior decorator. But what is Maggie Smith doing here? She looks disturbingly like Gene Hackman in the penultimate scene of The Birdcage. Neither do cameos from Edward Koch, Gloria Steinem, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Ivana Trump do anything more than undermine reputations. Ultimately, the film makes its strongest case for the husbands, especially when it becomes clear that the first wives' wrath is directed not at them but at all women with the audacity to be younger, thinner, or prettier than they. Despite its kneejerk ending, this Club deserves a beating.