BetteBack Review September 20, 1996: The First Wive’s Club – The New York Times

New York Times
September 20, 1996


With a mink and a drink, middle-aged Cynthia Griffin (Stockard Channing in an unbilled cameo) stands on her Fifth Avenue terrace, wondering whether she should leap. Just then, she glances toward an adjoining building to see a pretty young blonde on an exercise machine. The blonde waves cheerfully and that’s it for Cynthia. The last straw. Over and out.

Then “The First Wives Club,” a glossy comic revenge story told with great sisterly glee, cuts to Cynthia’s funeral to glimpse Gil, her not-too-bereaved ex-husband (James Naughton), with his brand-new wife. The bride looks so much like Heather Locklear that she actually IS Ms. Locklear, in one of the film’s amusing celebrity cameo walk-ons.

“Can you imagine what Gil is feeling right now?” asks one mourner. The camera takes one look at Gil’s hand on his trophy mate and answers that question.

Anyway, this spectacle is enough to galvanize three of Cynthia’s college pals into wall-to-wall wisecracks and enthusiastic acts of spite against the husbands who have abandoned them. It frees them to get mad, get even and enjoy such absurdities as the sight of a vain, aging businessman trying to step out of a Lamborghini. The film is played as witchy, all-star vamping with a lethal sting. What makes its premise especially funny is that, at heart, it’s no laughing matter.

Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn make a spirited, surprisingly harmonious trio. They reel off one-liners with accomplished flair, even when the film turns silly and begins to, pardon the expression, sag. As directed by Hugh Wilson (“Police Academy,” “Guarding Tess“) and written by Robert Harling (“Soapdish” and “Steel Magnolias”), it fares better with sight gags and quick retorts than with plot development. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but the ladies wind up sanctimoniously opening a women’s crisis center and romping through a girl-group musical number that’s painful to see.

“The First Wives Club” freely overhauls the amusing beach book by Olivia Goldsmith, eliminating the sex, adding more slapstick and tailoring the leading roles to suit three divas in starring roles. Ms. Hawn’s Elise, for instance, was a regal aging heiress and movie queen on the page but emerges here as a flashy, hilarious Hollywood monster.

“Right now I want to be young: science-fiction young,” she says, flaunting collagen-puffed lips that are one of the film’s funnier touches. Ms. Hawn, whose performance is the film’s biggest hoot, also gets some of its most barbed lines, like, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy.” Now there’s a fourth: show-stopping woman scorned.

Ms. Midler plays Brenda, the group’s overweight frump, who was none too close to the others before Cynthia’s death. (“Dear, sweet, funny, yearning Brenda,” coos Elise condescendingly.) But Brenda has her own brand of angry quips, especially when describing her nouveau-riche ex-husband, Morty (Dan Hedaya, guaranteed to make any such sleazy guy a treat).

“All of a sudden I’m holding him back because I won’t go rollerblading!” Brenda complains. Morty has taken up with Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker, also slyly good), a social climber of limited skills. She lives with Morty in a lovingly overdecorated apartment where the toilet is a gilded throne.

Ms. Keaton’s Annie is the goody-two-shoes in the group, although finding that her husband (Stephen Collins) has run off with her therapist (Marcia Gay Harden) is enough to throw her into a less well-behaved mood.

The best part of the film has the three women discovering their shared anger and bonding into the club of the title. Later on, less entertainingly, they open an office, sneak into one husband’s apartment and try out other tame tricks. The film’s best revenge scheme has Shelly at Christie’s, goaded into throwing away Morty’s money by a society doyenne (caricatured niftily by Maggie Smith) who whispers “Jackie O had one just like it” about the object on display. Sold.

Also in “The First Wives Club”: Bronson Pinchot, speaking in lofty, indeterminate British tones as a society decorator, and Elizabeth Berkley, redeeming herself from “Showgirls” in a brief role as the new young girlfriend of Elise’s ex (Victor Garber).

“Bill is so wrong!” she gushes at Elise. “You are NOT Satan!”

And Jennifer Dundas has some bright moments as Annie’s daughter, a lesbian who gives the film an excuse for a sexless gay bar scene a la “Birdcage.”

In party scenes, the film’s well-known walk-ons contribute to its general aura of comic glitz. Donald Trump has become de rigueur as a celebrity cameo in such circumstances, but he isn’t here. “The First Wives Club” gets — and deserves — Ivana.

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