BetteBack Review September 20, 1996: First Wive’s Club – ‘Wives’ is a tasty dish

Annapolis Capital
September 20, 1996

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Combine the screenwriters of “Steel Magnolias” and “Sister Act” with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, and what do you get? Multiple sarcasm.

Three of our most gifted comic actresses dish out witty, snarky lines as Elise, Annie and Brenda, women dumped by their husbands in favor of younger, firmer flesh. The movie takes advantage of their collaboration by admitting that they are not playing characters here – they’re playing cartoony versions of themselves.

As a result, when we hear that Ms. Keaton’s character is named Annie, the same name as her most famous role, we chuckle In recognition.

And when Elise (Ms. Hawn) snipes that Annie is “incapable of putting together a simple declarative sentence,” we know Ms. Hawn is really talking -about the Keattm trick of tmi-ing and la-di-da-ing her way through dialogue. And when, for no reason, they burst Into a completely choreographed, Broadway-worthy production number, we buy it because it’s the sort of thing Ms Midler might do.

These veterans know what we like about them, and they are eager to give it to us So Ms Keaton is flighty, Ms Midler is brassy, and Ms Hawn acknowledges the vanity that has to exist in a 50-year-old woman who still parades around in public in Danskins.

The plot has the three of them seeking revenge on their exhusbands and their new bimbetter halves. It’s slight, but screenwriters Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick supply clever, not-toomean wisecracks that split the difference between “Absolutely Fabulous” and “The Baby Sitters Club” (“Thanks to Cher’s pioneering efforts, you still haven’t hit puberty yet,” Ms. Midler snipes at the collagened Ms. Hawn).

Having said that, there is a patronizing tone to “The First Wives Club.” which treats the women like slightly more mature Nancy Drews. Can you imagine Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman teamed in a mild farce about their efforts to form a harmlessly middle-aged version of the Little Rascals? Not on this planet. It’s also troubling that this supposedly pro-women movie is only pro-women with crow’s feet (the younger characters are uniformly hateful, particularly the too-broad Sarah Jessica Parker)

“The First Wives Club” survives those kinds of problems because its tone is so consistently cheerful and because its cast also includes such gifted farceurs as Maggie Smith. Stockard Channing and Eileen Heckart. all of whom know that revenge is a dish best served funny.

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