Los Angeles Daily News
September 20, 1996 | Amy Dawes Daily News Film Critic
There’s a chance that “The First Wives Club” – a glossy revenge fantasy for women of a certain age – will hit a nerve the way “Waiting to Exhale” did and become a decent-size hit among the fed- up females who identify with it.
There’s a chance, too, that the boomer audience it’s aimed at will decide that aging is too sensitive a topic for laughs.
Either way, stars Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton have their work cut out for them when it comes to mining broad comedy from so prickly a subject, and too often, it feels as though the the joke’s on them. Based on the best-selling novel by Olivia Goldsmith, the movie gives us three well-heeled New York women who were pals in college and have since gone their separate ways. Two of them married well and took much of their identity from their husbands’ success, to which they contributed; another (Hawn) became a movie star and used her advantages to help boost the career of her studio executive spouse. What they have in common is that each has recently been dumped for a younger model, invariably portrayed as an airheaded gold-digger (one is played by “Showgirls’ ” Elizabeth Berkley, no less). Brought together by the suicide of an old schoolmate (Stockard Channing), the women basically decide to put aside their differences, get mad and get even. They establish a clubhouse (!) for meetings, and the movie plays out as a broad, lively fantasy, in which they carry out various daring high jinks and maneuvers designed to help each of them take their smug ex-husbands to the cleaners. Screenwriter Robert Harling has pared Goldsmith’s novel down to its breezy essentials, and he supplies a lot of the same kind of bitchy zingers that made his femme comedy “Steel Magnolias” delightful. Midler is ideally suited for slinging the one-liners, and all three of the women give exuberant, energetic performances, though one wishes that Keaton, playing the same harmless, lovable ditz she’s sustained from “Annie Hall” to “Father of the Bride, Part II,” would sort of … grow up. Still, so much of the humor in “First Wives Clubs” comes at the women’s own expense – the first act is a virtual symphony of age-related humiliations and petty female competitiveness – that one can’t help squirming. Aren’t they playing into the same kind of musty, gender-based attitudes that oppress them? The movie’s attempts at female empowerment seem out of touch, and it doesn’t help when the soundtrack blares Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox’s dated-sounding 1980s anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” In this movie, it too often feels as if sisters are doing it to themselves. The facts The film: “The First Wives Club” (PG; adult references). The stars: Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Bronson Pinchot, Dan Hedaya, Steven Collins, Victor Garber, Marcia Gay Harden. Behind the scenes: Directed by Hugh Wilson. Written by Robert Harling, based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Produced by Scott Rudin. Released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: One hour, 43 minutes. Playing: Citywide. Our rating: Three stars