By Stephanie Zacharek
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In the final scene of The First Wives Club, a comic fantasy in which three middle-aged women take revenge on the husbands who have traded them in for newer models, the triumphant heroines, all dressed in stylish, sinless white, link arms in the glistening dawn streets of lower Manhattan and dance off together into the prospect of a brighter day. Lesley Gore's ancient pop hit "You Don't Own Me," here transmogrified into a feminist anthem for the Nineties, swells dramatically on the soundtrack as the ex-wives sing along.
The sequence--indeed, the entire movie--has the unmistakable air of a TV commercial. Hey, women! Come on down to the showroom for our big sale on empowerment. You'll even catch glimpses of Gloria Steinem, who started Ms. magazine, and of Ivana Trump, the patron saint of world-record divorce settlements.
This is what passes in Hollywood these days for the debate on sexual politics--Steinem and Trump dropping in to play cameos while Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton are gotten up as former college classmates (Middlebury, 1969) who have developed in their forties into people so aimless and uninvolved that their only apparent goal in life is to take down the awful ex-husbands they once sacrificed to build up. Predictably, the men (Stephen Collins, Dan Hedaya and Victor Garber) are as shallow and murky as mud puddles. After three generations of sexist caricature, movies like this one say, it's high time to turn the tables on the oppressor gender.
Fair enough, but an odd thing happens in the process: The women as well as the men in Club are reduced to the lowest common denominator. The effect is not so pronounced in the sharp-edged Olivia Goldsmith bestseller that inspired the picture. It has taken screenwriter Robert Harling (who examined womanhood with greater wit and depth in Steel Magnolias) and director Hugh Wilson, a maker of TV sitcoms like WKRP in Cincinnati and Frank's Place, to knock the thing flat.
"Cute movie" was the most urgent comment I heard while exiting an afternoon showing attended largely by older women. Frankly, it's hard to improve on that verdict in seven or eight hundred words. Cute movie. Inadequate movie.
For richer or poorer, the injured parties:
Keaton's Annie is a smudged carbon copy of the confused East Side sophisticate she used to play in Woody Allen's films--complete with incomplete sentences and her patented hemming and hawing. Annie's Manhattan penthouse is slick, because Wilson and company are reaching for that old screwball-comedy polish. But now she's sharing it with only her daughter (just coming out as a lesbian, of course), because her oily adman husband, Aaron (Collins), has taken up with--cliche alert!--their sleek, babbling marriage counselor (Marcia Gay Harden). Woody, by the way, would never give white-bread Keaton a mother as neurotic and New York-ethnic as the one Eileen Heckart plays here: Annie and Mom don't just seem to hail from different families; they're from different planets.
Midler, whose acting talents have always matched her name, is the inevitable frump of the piece but is furnished with the picture's most ambitious wisecracks. Brenda is a housewife with a couple of kids, and she is stirred to revenge when her beloved Morty (Hedaya), an electrical-appliances magnate with his own TV commercials, runs off with a screechy bimbo named Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker).
Hawn's Elise, wouldn't you know, is the vain, aging Hollywood actress of the trio, strung out on Stolichnaya and facelifts. The only parts she's being offered these days are those of monstrous mothers, and when her producer/husband, Bill (Garber), beds down with an airheaded ingenue named Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley, freshly reupholstered after Showgirls), Elise, too, is filled with animus.
The three old pals are reunited in New York by the man-induced suicide of a fourth (hi there, Big Chill), but it's their shared experience with slimy hubbies that bonds them into sisterhood. For the rest of the movie, these well-heeled, well-dressed plotters unearth phony financial records, repossess office furniture, stage a bogus antique auction at Sotheby's and (in Elise's case) threaten to tell all to Barbara Walters. These are, of course, the acts of women scorned. Midler's Brenda even has a convenient uncle in the Mafia. "My mother's side of the family," she explains.
To keep up the appearances of farce, director Wilson traps the conniving trio in a window-washers' gondola perched at the top of a skyscraper, and he gives us Hawn on a comic crying jag in the St. Regis bar. He adds a gay interior decorator (Bronson Pinchot) and a sympathetic grand dame (Maggie Smith) to the conspiracy, and in general lets Midler, Hawn and Keaton--always a bit too glossy to convince as jilted wives--spew the bitter toxins of justice.
This is doggedly mainstream comedy, though, inhabited by major movie stars. So it just wouldn't do to make the ladies too vicious or too self-interested, even though the movie would be purer and more fun that way. Instead, writer and director drop in a little synthetic altruism: What the ladies are really up to as they denude their exes of all assets, we learn, is the establishment of a new women's center to be named for their dead classmate.
Come on, people. Surely the political-correctness police are not watching so carefully that three vengeance-seekers must transform their rage into goody-goody. I don't know what the plot looked like before Muriel's Wedding director P.J. Hogan dropped out of the project or before Paul Rudnick came in to polish the script. But a movie that manages to turn the issue of discarded women into a bland slab of Velveeta in the first place hardly needs to redeem its heroines by further compromising their instincts.
In the end, the whole thing deserves faint praise: cute movie.
The First Wives Club. Screenplay by Robert Harling, from a novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Directed by Hugh Wilson. With Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton.
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