BetteBack September 20, 1996: Mean, spirited `First Wive’s Club’ is worth joining

Mean, spirited `Club’ is worth joining
September 20, 1996 | Strickler, Jeff


When you’re on your way to see “The First Wives Club,” check your Minnesota Nice at the door. It has no place in this very mean – but very funny – revenge comedy.

Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith‘s best-selling novel, the film gives life to the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” The sarcasm is icy, and the zingers go straight for the jugular; they’re so nasty that sometimes you cringe before you laugh.

Brenda (Bette Midler), Annie (Diane Keaton) and Elise (Goldie Hawn) have been dumped by husbands facing mid-life crises and replaced with so-called “trophy wives” half their age. The three women, friends since college, all helped their husbands build the successful careers that have enabled them to dazzle their young sweethearts with expensive gifts. The dumped divorcees bristle with bitterness.

Taking to heart the advice offered in Ivana Trump’s cameo appearance – “Don’t get mad, get everything” – they decide to settle the score. “The idea is not just to make them suffer,” Brenda says, “but to make them suffer over and over again.”

The plot – farcical revenge against chauvinist pigs – is reminiscent of “9 to 5,” but the storytelling is quite different. There is a significant amount of poignancy blended with the humor: These women have been hurt by the men they loved.

A certain amount of male-bashing is inevitable in such a scenario, but men need not fear watching. In fact, the movie was made by men: Director Hugh Wilson (the original “Police Academy”) and writer Robert Harling (who wrote both the play and the movie adaptation of “Steel Magnolias”).

PC or not PC

Once the filmmakers get into a sarcastic mood, they widen their scope to take shots at everything from pompous interior designers (represented by Bronson Pinchot) to Hollywood ageism: Elise, an actress, auditions for the role of a romantic leading lady but is turned down because she’s 45; meanwhile, the producers hire Sean Connery as the male lead.

The humor is not always politically correct: The movie scores a big laugh when Brenda encounters her ex-husband’s rail-thin fiancee and quips, “I’m glad to see the bulimia finally paid off for you.”

The meanness doesn’t extend to the three stars, who share the spotlight amicably. In fact, instead of trying to upstage one another, they seem more intent on getting out of one another’s way. When the time finally comes for a song, it’s not Midler who steps forward to sing, but Keaton.

The supporting cast is strong. Joining Pinchot are two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dan Hedaya, Marcia Gay Harden and Elizabeth Berkley (who makes a respectable comeback after the embarrassing “Showgirls”). Besides Trump, there are cameos by Gloria Steinem, Kathie Lee Gifford and Edward Koch.

Like the novel from which it springs, “The First Wives Club” is certain to touch a sympathetic nerve among viewers of both genders who feel they’ve been wronged by a divorce settlement. For the rest of us, it just hits our funny bone.

Four out of a possible five stars

Starring: Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton.

Director: Hugh Wilson.

Review: A vicious and delicious comedy about revenge. The satire is so mean that sometimes you cringe – but then you laugh.

Rating: PG.

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