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The First Wives Club

Elise Elliot Atchison Goldie Hawn Brenda

In 1969, Goldie Hawn received an Oscar for her supporting role in “Cactus Flower”; Diane Keaton, fresh from “Hair” on Broadway, made her film debut in “Lovers and Other Strangers”; and Bette Midler was receiving her first acclaim as a musical revue artist in New York City. Now the formidable trio portray grads of Middlebury College’s class of ’69 in the caustic comedy “The First Wives Club.” With its combination of comic zingers and star turns, pic shapes up as one of the more commercial fall entries.

Pic’s three main characters are reunited by the suicide of a fourth college friend. Though they’ve been separated for nearly three decades, the protagonists’ lives since school have been strikingly similar. Each married well , raised a family and has recently divorced or separated. Their spouses all flew the coop for younger women and, naturally, the women are mad as hell. Their brand of justice provides for a biting social comedy on the order of “The War of the Roses” and “9 to 5.”

Elise (Hawn) is an Oscar-winning actress whose age is working against her getting the kind of roles that made her famous. Bill (Victor Garber), the husband whose producing career she nurtured, wants Elise to pay him alimony to put his very young girlfriend (Elizabeth Berkley) into his new movies.

Brenda (Midler) set her husband, Morty (Dan Hedaya), up in a chain of retail electronics stores. Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker), his new squeeze, is a cashier-turned-social climber. Annie (Keaton) also sacrificed to get her soon-to-be ex, Aaron (Stephen Collins), established in the ad agency biz. He pushed her out of the boardroom and the bedroom and took up with their New Age analyst (Marcia Gay Harden).

The sisters in misery decide to band together and give the men a taste of their own medicine. As their plans evolve, the objectives become grander and more global in scope. To effect their ex-husbands’ comeuppance they become urban commandos employing such societal weapons as the IRS, community property laws and arcane legal precedents. To make sure everything is on the up and up, they resort to extortion, bribery and coercion, commit breaking and entering and bear false witness.

The familiar setup sparkles a little brighter here thanks to the ensemble and their deft delivery of the bitchy dialogue in Robert Harling’s adaptation of the Olivia Goldsmith novel. To mangle a famous quote, “revenge is a dish best served up funny” in the movies. Helping to achieve that, in addition to the accomplished leads, are such skillful laugh-getters as Maggie Smith, Philip Bosco, Eileen Heckart, Bronson Pinchot and, proving that brevity is the soul of a cameo gag, Rob Reiner.

The sense of anarchy recalls the zaniness of the Marx Brothers. But the filmmakers relent with a much too tidy, wholesome conclusion that flies in the face of all that preceded it. Still, getting there is almost all the fun.

Midler, Hawn and Keaton are a refreshingly cohesive comedy combo with that indefinable thing known as screen chemistry. It’s particularly satisfying to see Hawn making sport of her eternally youthful persona and Midler giving full vent to her outsize personality. Keaton subtly keeps her co-stars from spinning into the ether. Also memorable in a cast of scene-stealers are Smith as a Manhattan social lioness, Parker as an insatiable opportunist and Garber effecting a supreme smugness that’s a wonder to watch slowly eroding.

Director Hugh Wilson wisely gets out of the way of his performers, providing a simple glossy look enhanced by cameraman Donald Thorin, designer Peter Larkin and the costumes of Theoni V. Aldredge.

He and editor John Bloom understand that if one is to play the material big and broad, the story rhythm has to be attuned to the laughter emanating from the back row.

It’s easy to pick apart “The First Wives Club” in a number of prime areas. For a female-sensitive saga, it has few distaff key creative personnel behind the camera.

Story’s male characters take their fair share of hard, humorous scrutiny, but it’s the women who get the worst of it every wrinkle and pound receives special attention.

One can also quibble that the picture falls a little too hard into the category of “rich people’s problems.”

At its core, the film is a celebration of its star trio as consummate performers. In that respect, “First Wives Club” is a highly enjoyable movie romp.

The First Wives Club

  • Production: A Paramount Pictures release of a Scott Rudin production. Produced by Rudin. Executive producers, Ezra Swerdlow, Adam Schroeder. Co-producer, Thomas Imperato. Directed by Hugh Wilson. Screenplay, Robert Harling, based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith.
  • Crew: Camera (DuArt color), Donald Thorin; editor, John Bloom; music , Marc Shaiman; production design, Peter Larkin; art direction, Charles Beal; set decoration, Leslie Rollins; costume design, Theoni V. Aldredge; choreography , Pat Birch; sound (Dolby stereo), Peter Kurland; assistant director, Michael E. Steele; casting, Ilene Starger. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., Sept. 11, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 102 MIN.