First Wives, Last Laughs Review: It's a great idea for a movie: Three very funny women plot revenge on the men who dumped them.

September 20, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Smart and sassy, "The First Wives Club" is funny enough to amuse even the second wives.

This is what you call your primo high-concept movie, the idea of which alone is funny; too bad that the somewhat messy and disjointed story wasn't wired together better and that it depends so heavily on the shtick of the stars.

Here's the nub: Three sensational women -- Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler -- wake up in their late 40s to find themselves reduced but abandoned anyway. Their prosperous husbands have dumped them for younger, shapelier women and left them in lessened circumstances, with kids and messy houses and mortgages and tuitions to pay. They're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore!

So they don't. Like a Jacobean drama, "The First Wives Club" is a revenge melodrama in which the women conspire to unhinge the happy and sex-addled lives of the guys, take all their money and their joy and turn them into bitter, isolated turnips. In other words, for les gals, it's got a happy ending!

Goldie Hawn is a movie star so obsessed with appearances that she's turned into the College of Plastic Surgeons' poster child, with odd bulges and puffs all over her and enough tucks, lifts, snips and injections to look like an escapee from the Revlon R&D shop. Her lips, recently plumped up with industrial-strength collagen for an audition, could be photographed for National Geographic. It's a miracle she can breathe. She's also a drunk, by the way. Her dumper is a smug, smarmy producer, played by Victor Garber, currently dating Elizabeth Berkeley, of "Showgirls" infamy. (Berkeley, for the record, is very funny as the dippy looker.) Not only does he want his freedom and her furniture, but he wants alimony!

Bette Midler, by contrast, is surprisingly modulated, perhaps a reflection of the actress' real, as opposed to her public, personality. This is the smart, funny woman who shows up in interviews rather than the blaster who belts out "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B." I think I like this one a lot better, actually; We see her brains and her compassion and her ambivalence. Her creep, played by Dan Hedaya, is an appliance king who's promoted himself into a minor TV celeb of the crass, brain-numbing variety and taken up with a scrawny Nautilized check-out gal (a slumming Sarah Jessica Parker) whom he keeps in a penthouse that looks like it was decorated by Larry Flynt and Althea Leisure.

Then, oh, um, gosh, finally, you know, ah, anyhow, the third, um, one, er, ah, is, hmmm, ah, played in, oh, heck, sort of, well, I guess, you know, high dither by, um, er, well, it's Diane Keaton. She breathes a lot when she talks, breaking her sentences down to little incoherent spurts. She tries so hard to be nice, and what does it get her, I mean besides the $500,000 house in the 'burbs and financial security for life? Obviously not enough. The lump in her life is Stephen Collins, but the real insult -- oh, nasty, bitter touch! -- is that Collins has dumped her for her own analyst!

What makes the movie work is the chemistry between the three very funny leads. They are the Three Stooges of feminist revenge fantasy: bickering, backbiting, bitching and always making with the wisecracks, the best of which is delivered by Midler when she spies her husband buying a mere envelope in black chiffon for his new friend: "Morty, can't you afford a whole dress?"

As I say, this is much funnier that the somewhat incoherent revenge plot itself, which turns too much on outside help from poorly developed minor characters played by major actors. The great Maggie Smith, for example, has a throw-away appearance as a social doyenne who helps engineer the downfall of one of the spouses, but I forget which one.

There's too much explaining as the various wheels and cogs of the plot are set in motion, most of it built around a barter economy of favors that are hard to follow and harder still to care about unless you're a first wife. (Note: I am not). It's much funnier when it isn't working so hard and the women just get together and dish and when the men sally through the edges of their lives with that incredible smugness and certitude the recently liberated seem to enjoy.

One last thing is worth mentioning: The movie, when its plot finally allows it to end, unleashes a terrific number with the three wise-guy gals, the old Lesley Gore hit "You Don't Own Me," which brings the movie to a close with a blast. Nice going.

'The First Wives Club'

Starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton

Directed by Hugh Wilson

Released by Paramount Rating PG (Sexual situations)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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