“This is not a revenge thing. This is about justice,” says Elise (Goldie Hawn) to Brenda (Bette Midler) and Annie (Diane Keaton) and their ex-husbands in the new-to-video The First Wives Club. Armed with that self-righteous, self-effacing semantic distinction, the three affluent middle-aged divorcees team up to hit their exes where it hurts: in the wallet. The big bucks the movie itself garnered — it grossed $105 million during its theatrical release last fall — provided a high-impact pop-culture vindication of scorned women and marked the coming-of-age of feminist comeuppance comedies, in which aggrieved heroines get mad, get even, and get laughs.
A scan of the video store shelves for the First Wives’ forerunners turns up 1980’s 9 to 5, in which corporate wage slaves Doralee (Dolly Parton), Judy (Jane Fonda), and Violet (Lily Tomlin) depose the bullying boss (Dabney Coleman) who has chased, insulted, and thwarted them. Dexterously directed by Colin Higgins (Foul Play), if slightly dated (the trio reveal their revenge fantasies during a giggly pot-smoking scene), the farce bubbles along with a sitcom-style zaniness that’s perfect for the small screen. (It’s no surprise that the film begat a 1982 TV series.) Yet there are glimpses of pathos in Tomlin and Fonda, especially Fonda as the just-divorced secretary whose newfound strength surprises even her. As the women reverse their boss’ draconian policies, they not only help their suffering, almost exclusively female coworkers, but also increase productivity. Because they do well by doing good, their brand of revenge looks a lot like justice.
Not so in She-Devil, in which Ruth Patchett (Roseanne), abandoned by her philandering accountant husband, Bob (Ed Begley Jr.), in favor of glamorous romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep), does a whole lotta damage on the way to payback. Her philosophy may be ”Justice serves those who serve themselves,” but Ruth’s brand of justice looks a lot like revenge: She methodically destroys the family house, frames Bob for embezzlement, ruins his affair, and gets him sent to prison. Streep, a gem among the rhinestones, shows uncharacteristic comic abandon and provides some laugh-out-loud moments, while Roseanne goes about her vendetta with a stolid matter-of-factness that makes the payoffs even more gratifying. But director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) strives hard for a mood of satanic glee, and all the striving shows. Gags go on a little too long (watching the film at home, among distractions, just compounds this problem) and Ruth’s narration, intended to drip with vitriol, just gets in the way. Meanwhile, the story’s supposedly ironic, bet-hedging subplot — that almost as an afterthought, the ”she-devil” befriends, liberates, and employs dozens of women during her crusade — undercuts its bracing vigilante allure.
Don’t expect to find anything remotely demonic in The First Wives Club, directed by Hugh Wilson (Police Academy) and based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith. Its big-budget, kid-gloved variation on the hell-hath-no-fury theme is upbeat enough to star beloved broads Keaton, Hawn, and Midler, especially since the characters are simply variations on their already popular personas. Again Keaton bumbles WASPily; again Hawn struts sexily; again an earthy, zaftig Midler cracks wise. As if the proceedings weren’t predigested enough, a supporting cast of notable babes (Heather Locklear, Elizabeth Berkley, and Sarah Jessica Parker) plus New York glitterati (Gloria Steinem, Ed Koch, Kathie Lee Gifford, and presiding avatar Ivana Trump) adds an in-jokey slickness to the proceedings. There’s even a shamelessly crowd-pleasing musical number tacked on at the end.
Still, the stars are pros of a certain age. They manage to keep the film bustling along as the three heroines go about breaking and entering, kidnapping, and extorting money from their ex-husbands. (Though it’s oh-so-convenient that Elise, the movie star, possesses the millions of dollars that make the trio’s counterattack possible, at least her line of work allows for some sly Hollywood jokes, such as her lament that ”there are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.”) In the end, however, The First Wives Club comes off as disingenuous. The women’s crisis center Elise, Brenda, and Annie endow with their exes’ loot seems just an afterthought, a preachy rationale for all their screwball wackiness. In the values-crazed ’90s, only ”justice” can justify such antics; revenge, it seems, is still too unladylike. But this philosophical fig leaf doesn’t conceal much. Of course Elise, Brenda, Annie, Ruth, Doralee, Judy, and Violet are out for revenge. That’s why we like them.
The First Wives Club: B-
9 to 5: A-