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BetteBack September 23, 1996: `Wives’: why men aren’t laughing

`Wives’: why men aren’t laughing
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
September 23, 1996 | Diane White, Globe Staff


`The First Wives Club” doesn’t do much to elevate the level of discourse between the sexes, but it does have some funny one-liners.

“All of a sudden I’m holding him back because I won’t go Rollerblading!” says Bette Midler‘s Brenda, explaining why her husband has left her for a much younger (and much, much skinnier) woman.

Lines like that one may be funnier if you’re female. In fact, the whole movie is probably funnier if you’re female, which doubtless is as it’s meant to be. The film is loosely based on Olivia Manning’s darkly comic novel about three 40-ish women, former schoolmates, who meet after many years at the funeral of a friend who killed herself because her husband left her for a younger woman. The three survivors discover they’ve all been abandoned by their husbands for younger partners, and they join forces to wreak acts of vengeance that are far-fetched, to put it mildly.

“The First Wives Club” is a knee-jerk feminist revenge comedy, kind of “Thelma and Louise Meet Annie Hall,” except nobody ends up dead, nobody besides the suicidal friend, that is. The plot line expires, though, about halfway through the movie, when it forsakes comedy and turns earnest and uplifting.

Up until then I thought it was reasonably hilarious.

A friend disagrees. In fact, he hated the movie, all of it. He was uncomfortable sitting in a theater with a mostly female audience who cheered every time one of the errant males in the movie got his just — or unjust, depending on your point of view — deserts.

I can understand that. But how can you hate a movie that has Midler and Goldie Hawn? And Diane Keaton too, if you like that sort of thing. And what about those funny lines? When Hawn, as the fading movie star Elise, begs her cosmetic surgeon to inject more collagen into her lips: “I want Tina Turner! I want Mick Jagger!” she whines. “I want young! Science-fiction young!” Funny, no?

Funny no, my friend says, not particularly funny at least. Is this the humor gender gap we keep hearing about? Men and women tend to laugh at different things. Generally speaking. Or so those who study humor say. For instance, it’s a rare man who’ll laugh at a joke about baldness or prostate problems. But women can’t stop laughing about PMS and menopause.

The experts say that women tend to laugh at themselves, whereas men tend to laugh at others. (By “others” do they mean women, or does it just seem that way?) This is why, I explained to my friend, we can both laugh about my being fat but only I can laugh about his comb-over. He didn’t think that was funny.

“The First Wives Club” starts to wobble when the main characters quit laughing at themselves and get into an I-am-woman-hear-me-roar mode. They acquire — what else? — self-esteem, and launch elaborate schemes to get back at their husbands. The male-bashing is for the most part not funny, in part because all the men in the movie aren’t interesting. They’re all one-dimensional, stereotypical, self-centered jerks.

The film bogs down completely near the end when the trio opens a women’s crisis center, apparently — although it’s never explicitly stated — to help other women give their husbands the shaft. The launch party for this place is a festival of egregious celebrity cameos. Gloria Steinem appears in one shot, Ed Koch in another. And Ivana Trump offers her own words of wisdom, “Don’t get even. Get everything.” Swell, Ivana. Kathie Lee Gifford, in what has got to be one of the worst career moves ever, pops up to interview Midler et al. What, I can’t help but wonder, does the first Mrs. Frank Gifford think of that?

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