Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 29, 2022)
When The First Wives Club hit screens in September 1996, I thought its three lead actors – Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton – looked old. 26 years later… not so much.
Hawn and Midler were 50 during the shoot, while Keaton was 49 – all younger than I am now. Aging sucks!
But does Wives suck as well? I don’t even recall if I saw the movie in 1996, so chalk me up as curious to find out its cinematic merits circa 2022.
After mutual friend Cynthia (Stockard Channing) dies, old college pals Elise (Hawn), Brenda (Midler) and Annie (Keaton) revive their relationship. They soon find themselves bound together for another unfortunate reason: divorce.
And not just any old divorce, but divorce instigated because their husbands all leave them for much younger women. Betrayed and angry, the women unite into the “First Wives Club” and seek to get back at their former spouses.
I’ll say this for Club: if you wanted to pursue a story such as this in the mid-1990s, the film boasts an ideal cast. With Midler, Hawn and Keaton, we get a formidable crew.
That seems important for a tale like this, as we need strong women in the fore to swallow the premise. With weaker actors, it would be easier to see why the husbands would dump their wives, but with these dynamic ladies, we can’t find as many reasons to excuse the actions of the men.
Of course, Club paints the ex-husbands as such cads that we’d dislike them no matter what. Nonetheless, the presence of appealing and winning lead females allows for us to stay in their corner and not think the wives contributed to their own fates.
In addition to the three leads and Channing, Club comes with a pretty amazing cast. We also find folks like Dan Hedaya, Stephen Collins, Victor Garber, Bronson Pinchot, Philip Bosco, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Gay Harden, and others.
Heck, future Oscar winner JK Simmons even shows up in a tiny part! We get a terrific group of actors, and they manage to add some charm to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, that stellar cast and the good chemistry among the leads can’t compensate for the movie’s loose structure and lack of real coherence. Club feels more like a premise than a fleshed-out movie most of the time.
Based on Olivia Goldsmith’s 1992 novel, one assumes that the source offers more substance than the movie. Or maybe not, but it seems tough to believe that a book would consist of such a loose framework.
The cinematic Club often comes across as a collection of plot contrivances and comedic set pieces. Despite all the time we spend with the three leads, we never really get a sense of them beyond basics.
Of course, all enjoy some form of self-realization and improvement, but these arcs don’t elevate above the level of “you go, girl”. The main characters remain sketchy and don’t develop into anything other than slightly more self-aware caricatures.
The talents of Midler, Hawn and Keaton manage to hide some of the screenplay’s flaws, but they can only go so far. Though the three enjoy a pretty good chemistry, they can’t fix the inherent script problems or the erratic direction.
Filmmaker Hugh Wilson made his bones on TV and remains best known as the man behind WKRP in Cincinnati. His history as a sitcom guy seems apparent here since he pursues Club in the same way.
This means an emphasis on random comedic beats rather than overall coherence. Club usually feels more like a collection of comedy sketches than a story that wants to go anywhere.
Club also slightly botches the casting of the “younger women”, as most simply aren’t young enough for the premise to really work. Two of the three are in their 30s – or three of the four, if you count the new partner for deceased Cynthia’s ex - which feels too old for the “trophy wife” thing to make sense.
Logically, the movie would pair the husbands with women in their early 20s – and in the case of Elise’s ex Bill (Garber), this proves true, as he trades her in for a role played by 23-year-old Elizabeth Berkley.
We find actors in their 30s for the remaining “other women”, though, and that feels like a weird choice. Sure, Morty and Aaron still drop their wives for younger ladies, but the gut punch seems less substantial when they’re not that much younger.
Perhaps I wouldn’t notice – or care about – these casting choices if Club kept me engaged as a whole. However, despite a simply awesome cast, the film produces only the most minor pleasures and becomes a predictable disappointment.