`Starter Wife' is breezy summer entertainment

Tv Review

May 31, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

A bedside phone rings in the middle of the night. A sleepy woman fumbles the receiver to her ear.

"I want a divorce," her husband's voice says over the line. "I'm staying at the Peninsula. I'll call tomorrow."


So begins the journey of Molly Kagan from a Hollywood mogul's immaculately groomed Beverly Hills spouse to single mom without status desperately seeking a better life in the miniseries The Starter Wife. Fast-paced and funny without being lightweight, this knowing trip through LaLa Land and gender warfare makes for near-perfect summertime viewing.

Based on the best-selling novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, wife of Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, the six-hour USA cable production has more going for it behind and in front of the camera than most feature films do. For starters: a stellar starring performance by Debra Messing (Will & Grace) as Kagan; a witty script by Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon (Runaway Bride) that ranges comfortably from catty to poignant; and a firm sense of pacing by director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes). And they have all brought their A-game to the film, which starts tonight.

It takes Avnet only 11 minutes to give viewers the fabric of Molly's pre-breakup life as producer Kenny Kagan's (Peter Jacobson) wife. There are manicures, pedicures, linen-tablecloth lunches, red-carpet galas ... .

Thread by thread, it all painfully starts to unravel for Molly after that middle-of-the-night call.

An attendant at the front desk of her health club informs her that her membership has been canceled. Suddenly, there are no longer tables available at any of the restaurants at which she used to lunch.

Worst of all, most of the women with whom she dined - wives of other studio executives - shun her. She has become a reminder of their own precarious status, a symbol of what could happen to them.

Molly finds some emotional support in the trusting arms of her 5-year-old daughter, Jaden (Bethany Whitmore), and the grown-up sarcasm of bosom buddy Rodney Evans (Chris Diamantopoulos).

There is further aid and comfort from an older friend, Joan McAllister (Judy Davis), who lends Molly a Malibu home for the summer. And, there is that bronzed beauty of a young man whom she meets on the beach. He's clearly interested, but is he going to be a guide to higher ground on this journey - or a trickster who only brings the struggling heroine down further?

The Starter Wife is not without missteps. An opening that depicts Molly as Dorothy skipping down the Yellow Brick Road is heavy-handed. In fact, the first 10 minutes of the film suffer from an overload of self-consciously silly Wizard of Oz references.

But that miscalculation pales in comparison to the outstanding lead performance. Messing is superb in making Molly vulnerable without letting her come off as a victim. Even at Molly's lowest, she always has a winning edge thanks to the force with which Messing imbues the character.

The film starts to fly once it settles on the narrative of Molly and Jaden, cast out of Hollywood Eden for Mommy's sin of no longer exciting Daddy the way a young pop star named Shoshanna does.

"You know what? Shoshanna is just insatiable," the self-absorbed Kenny tells Molly several weeks after their breakup.

It is said partly out of cruelty. But Molly is getting stronger.

"What? Does that mean whatever you do, you never can satisfy her?" the ex-wife counters.

Keep cracking wise, Molly, and don't let the likes of Kenny beat you down.


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