First Wives' Club, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's something of a mystery how three accomplished comic actresses like Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Better Midler found themselves in the midst of an atrocious mess like The First Wives Club. My best guess is that the story looked better -- much better -- on paper. After all, the premise -- a trio of women getting revenge on the husbands who dumped them for younger women -- sounds like a good idea for a truly biting satire. Unfortunately, although there are a few nasty thorns here and there, The First Wives Club is a largely uninspired (and unfunny) comedy that collapses completely in the final fifteen minutes. The saccharine ending will threaten to send even a mildly cynical viewer into sugar shock.

The three abandoned women are Annie (Keaton), a meek housewife who has been going to a therapist for assertiveness training; Elise (Hawn), an Academy-Award winning actress; and Brenda (Midler), the loud-mouthed mother of a teenage boy. Once fast friends, they have grown apart over the years, but are reunited following the suicide of another college pal. After discovering how much they have in common, they decide to avenge themselves upon the cads to whom they gave the best years of their lives: Annie's Aaron (Stephen Collins), who deserted his wife for her psychologist (Marcia Gay Harden); Elise's Bill (Victor Garber), who is currently hanging out with a very young starlet (Elizabeth Berkley, showing considerably less than in Showgirls); and Brenda's Morty, who's engaged to a vapid social-climber (Sarah Jessica Parker). The first wives' sitcom-like plans for "justice" involve causing severe financial distress to each of their ex's, and, to that end, they employ the aid of an important socialite (Maggy Smith), an interior decorator (Bronson Pinchot), Annie's lesbian daughter (Jennifer Dundas), and a mob boss (Philip Bosco).

The First Wives Club probably would have been tolerable had any of the characters attained even a marginal level of likeability. But none of the major players is remotely sympathetic, and, about halfway through the film, I started wishing for the end credits so I could get away from these people. The first wives are shrill and irritating; it's no wonder their husbands dumped them. Of course, the men are just as bad -- self-centered, dumb, and shallow. And, unsurprisingly, the "replacement women" are bimbos -- bodies without brains. The only enjoyable characters are the secondary ones, like Annie's daughter. (In her case, I'll give the film some credit for presenting a positive, if superficial, portrayal of a lesbian.) The "male bashing" charge likely to be leveled at this movie is unfair -- Robert Harling's script is equally unkind to men and women.

An underlying theme of The First Wives Club addresses society's negative perception of middle-aged women, that "worth" and desirability vanish with graying hair. And, while this is a shameful cultural problem, the film's preachy approach doesn't offer any new insights. There are a few witty jabs at Hollywood's obsession with the beauty of "anorexic teenagers". In Elise's words, the industry is interested in three types of women: "babes, district attorneys, and Driving Miss Daisys." Had the movie sharpened more such well-targeted barbs and taken a few risks, The First Wives Club might have been fun. As it is, however, the screenplay is lifeless, and the Hugh Wilson's (Guarding Tess) direction is flat. As for the non-verbal humor -- well, if you're amused by the idea of Keaton, Hawn, and Midler sneaking out of a high-rise apartment onto a window-washer's platform, then maybe this is your kind of movie. It's not mine.

Despite the dross they're forced to work with, the leading women do their best to make us believe they've struck gold. There are even a few times when we almost believe them. Ultimately, though, the material's poor quality defeats even the combined skills of Keaton, Hawn, and Midler. There are a number of interesting cameos (including Ed Koch, Heather Locklear, and Ivana Trump), but the one who gets the best deal is Stockard Channing. She appears in an early scene, drowning her sorrows in booze. What makes her lucky, however, is that she gets to jump off a balcony before the memory of the opening credits has grown cold. By not having to stick around for the next ninety minutes, she's granted a reprieve that many in the audience are sure to envy.

First Wives' Club, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 1996-09-20
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1