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Movie Review

'Club' Draws Strength From Its Members

September 20, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Trophies used to be what rich men brought home from golf tournaments and yachting regattas. In today's more shameless age, the trophy concept has been extended to wives, with the exchanging of original spouses for distinctly younger versions with more display value becoming routine.

A culture that sanctions discarding women is ripe for satire, not to mention revolt, and it was inevitable that something like Olivia Goldsmith's novel "The First Wives Club" and the film based on it would appear.

Aside from a strong concept, "The First Wives Club" is fortunate to have the sparkling trio of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler in the title roles. Yet with so much going for it, the film's creators have made the classic Hollywood choice and treated its actresses like flesh-and-blood special effects. If you've got talent like this, or so the theory goes, a coherent story is a luxury that can be dispensed with.

Part of a group of young women who vowed eternal friendship when they graduated from Middlebury College in 1969, our heroines have not been good at keeping in touch. But then a tragedy occurs and Elise Elliot Atchison, Brenda Morelli Cushman and Annie MacDuggan Paradise are thrown together one more time.

Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a glamorous movie star well aware that there are only three ages for actresses in Hollywood: "babe, district attorney and 'Driving Miss Daisy.' " Spoiled enough to have problems operating a vacuum cleaner, Elise is overdosing on collagen shots (her newly oversized lips are a running joke) and worrying that the only parts she seems to be up for are mothers.

Annie (Diane Keaton) is cheerful and hopeful to the point of dating her estranged husband even though it upsets their daughter, who wails, "Mother, I'm so disappointed." Saddled with self-esteem problems, Annie is also a writer and the vehicle for the film's sporadic voice-over.

Brenda (Bette Midler) is the wit of the group, never lacking for a saucy, Mae West-type riposte. When Annie asks if Elise has had any plastic surgery, Brenda insists, "Honey, she's a quilt." Even lines that don't sound especially funny, like her plea to her bar mitzvah-aged son, "Don't shame me in the synagogue," draw laughs in her hands.

*

Clearly relishing the opportunity to work together, these three actresses, aided by some clever lines in Robert Harling's script and Hugh Wilson's direction, bring both energy and fun to the proceedings. If "First Wives Club" consisted only of these three cracking wise, there would be little to complain about.

But having discovered that they share the experience of being abandoned by ungrateful, youth-obsessed first husbands, the friends are compelled by the story line to plot revenge, and this is where "First Wives Club" goes astray.

Not that revenge is a bad idea, it's just that what the film cooks up for these women to do is unoriginal and erratic. As these exemplary stars wander off into a series of hit-and-miss episodes, in effect searching for a movie that isn't there, an "is this all there is?" feeling is inevitable.

"First Wives Club" also suffers from problems of tone. Its mood varies from the comic to the sour (its treatment of gauche new girlfriend Shelly, played by Sarah Jessica Parker) to the awkwardly uplifting, as the wives end up opening a crisis center for women that seems to have wandered over from another movie.

Still, it is hard to get too upset at a film that offers these actresses the chance to be entertaining. When the trio breaks into a spirited version of Lesley Gore's classic "You Don't Own Me," grumbling about content seems, momentarily at least, beside the point.

* MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements, some mild language and sensuality. Times guidelines: a scene of suicide.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'The First Wives Club'

Bette Midler: Brenda

Goldie Hawn: Elise

Diane Keaton: Annie

Maggie Smith: Gunilla Goldberg

Sarah Jessica Parker: Shelly

Dan Hedaya: Morty

A Scott Rudin production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Hugh Wilson. Producer Scott Rudin. Executive producers Ezra Swerdlow, Adam Schroeder. Screenplay Robert Harling, based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Cinematographer Donald Thorin. Editor John Bloom. Costumes Theoni V. Aldredge. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design Peter Larkin. Art director Charles Beal. Set decorator Leslie E. Rollins. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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