Friday 17 April 2015

Movie Review: The First Wives Club (1996)

A sharply written comedy about the pitfalls women face in middle age, The First Wives Club is an often hilarious film with a superb cast in top form.

After graduating from college as best friends, Annie (Diane Keaton), Brenda (Bette Midler), Elise (Goldie Hawn) and Cynthia (Stockard Channing) drift apart and pursue their lives. About 25 years later, Cynthia commits suicide after her husband leaves her for another, younger woman. Annie, Brenda and Elise reconnect at the memorial service, and discover that they are all being badly treated by their men.

Brenda dedicated her life to her family, only for her husband Morty (Dan Hedaya), the owner of a chain of electronics stores, to leave her for the much younger Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker). Elise became a famous Hollywood star and helped her husband Bill (Victor Garber) establish himself as a producer. He now wants a divorce and has his eye on young starlet Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley). Annie, an accommodating apologist still tolerating the nagging of her mother Catherine (Eileen Heckart), wants to desperately believe that she has a salvageable marriage to husband Aaron (Stephen Collins), a marketing executive. But she also discovers that he is having an affair with their joint therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden).

Driven by anger and a desire for revenge, the three women band together to heap misery on the men. Deploying Elise's financial clout and with help from interior decorator Duarto (Bronson Pinchot) and New York socialite Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith), Brenda tries to find a way to manipulate the naive Shelly and bring down Morty's retail empire. Annie joins forces with her daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas) and tries to manoeuvre her way into a position of influence at Aaron's marketing firm. Elise does her best to ensure that Bill gets very little from their share of the assets. But the ladies soon clash among themselves and realize that revenge alone may not provide the satisfaction that they seek.

Directed by Hugh Wilson and written by Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick, The First Wives Club is a snappy riot. The film generates its laughs from the strength of its likable characters, and successfully steers clear of cheap gags. While some set-ups are unfortunately quite contrived (for example, the ladies end up descending a building on a barely-controlled window cleaning platform), most of the film's energy is derived from the angst of real women grappling with the unfairness of life.

Elise: You think just because I'm a movie star, I don't have feelings, well, you're wrong! I do have feelings! I'm an actress! I have ALL of them!

And while the film is first and foremost a comedy of empowerment, it also has a lot to say about the ghastly treatment handed out by men as they approach middle-age, find success and dump the women who helped to get them there. There isn't a sympathetic main male character anywhere to be found (the hapless Duarto comes closest), and while the men are driven by blind lust and the superficiality of good looks, women are presented as both allies (Gunilla, Chris, Catherine) and back-stabbing, gold-digging enemies (Phoebe, Shelley, Leslie).

Brenda: Where's Shelly?
Morty: In the car.
Brenda: Glove compartment?
Morty: Trunk.

The dialogue exchanges are a particular highlight. Almost every conversation, jab and retort is polished to a shine and dipped in irony, sarcasm, or venom. They don't always work, but most of them do, and in the hands of the brilliant cast, the film becomes a showcase for clever verbal sparring and timing excellence.

Elise: You've got some nerve! I drink because I am a sensitive and highly strung person!
Brenda: No, that's why your co-stars drink!
Elise: I am not a DRUNK!
Brenda: Oh really? Let's examine the evidence! Look! All bottles! And gallon jugs!
Elise: I had GUESTS.
Brenda: Who, Guns N' Roses?!

Watching Keaton, Hawn and Midler bounce off each other is a delight, and the screen glows with what appears to be a genuine rapport as they share equal screen time. Hawn happily represents the youth obsessed culture of Hollywood and allows herself to play with the extremes of injections, face lifts and plastic surgery. Midler embrases the frumpyness trap of middle age motherhood, while Keaton carries the flag of women with the crying need to believe that everything will work out., and who stand ready to take all the blame when they don't. All three evolve out of necessity into take-charge women ready to dish out pain, and the film rides on their wave of transformation.

The supporting cast is unusually deep, with Sarah Jessica Parker sparkling as the hilariously dim Shelly. The likes of Ivana Trump, Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Kathie Lee Gifford make minor guest appearances, and J.K. Simmons appears in a bit part.

Ivana: Ladies, you have to be strong and independent. And remember...
Elise: What?
Ivana: Don't get mad... get everything.

The ending goes searching for a greater meaning and falters a bit as it moves away from the core premise. Although The First Wives Club is not necessarily perfect, this group of fun-loving ladies is well worth joining.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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