Paced like a Chris Farley movie and photographed like a denture-cream commercial, The First Wives Club is the sort of overbright plastic-package comedy that tends to live or die by its jokes, its farcical audacity anything but its ''conviction.'' Yet conviction is just what the movie's costars bring it. Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton play Manhattanites in their mid-40s who've all been abandoned by their husbands. In each case, the lout in question has run off with a shapely and, of course, empty-headed younger woman. The satire takes off from the painful predicament of ordinary ''first wives'' everywhere. As soon as you see the actresses bite into their roles, though, you realize that, for them, the film is hitting much closer to home. Who, after all, knows the agony of being passed over for youthful flesh better than Hollywood leading ladies?
Hawn, Midler, and Keaton are former college friends who meet up at the funeral of a fourth comrade, a socialite who committed suicide after her marital debacle. During a drunken reunion lunch (the movie's giddiest sequence), the three agree to join forces in extracting payback from their selfish, cosmetically fixated former mates. Watching Hawn, Midler, and Keaton luxuriate in the pleasure of their own haughtiness, their proud-to-be-a-bitch venom, all you have to do is substitute ''piggish studio executive'' for ''faithless husband'' to realize that they're playing off their own experience. Hawn is actually portraying a famous movie star, and she just about preens with hostility. Her character is an Oscar-winning actress who's now being offered the humiliation of ''mother'' roles; depressed, she gets herself injected with ever-scarier doses of collagen. As she observes with a withering shrug, ''There are three ages of women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.'' As long as Hawn and her cronies are skewering male insensitivity with that sort of filed-talon wit, The First Wives Club whisks us along.
Written by Robert Harling, the movie received an uncredited polish from Paul Rudnick, who practices his own form of elegantly vicarious feminine viciousness as Premiere's Libby Gelman-Waxner. In The First Wives Club, there are moments though not nearly enough of them when you can feel Rudnick at work. Passing a mini-dress in a window display, Midler, as a housewife too full of rage to worry about vanity, exclaims: ''Who's supposed to wear that some anorectic teenager? Some fetus?'' If black-widow spiders wrote punchlines, they'd sound like that. The First Wives Club has all the conviction a comedy of female vengeance needs. But as soon as the dumb plot takes over, the wit leaks out of the movie like helium from a balloon.
The trouble with a film that's this single-minded about male bashing is that, in its eagerness to portray the victimizers as petty cartoon louts, it actually defangs them; it trivializes the comic thrill of revenge. The husbands, played by Stephen Collins (yuppie scum), Dan Hedaya (vulgarian scum), and Victor Garber (Hollywood scum), are sleazo ciphers whom the movie has, in essence, already castrated. And so after the heroines work off their initial burst of comic steam, the picture has nowhere to go. The revenge is strictly economic: a convoluted scheme that involves business takeovers, grabbing custody of shared assets, and so forth. This may be the stuff of marital revenge in real life, but that doesn't make it funny. The film becomes a wan caper that forgot it was a comedy.
As game as the actresses are, there's something fundamentally masochistic about a movie in which women are this fixated on men (even if it's to get the better of them). The First Wives Club buys in to the very image of women it says it's rejecting. Goldie Hawn may be 50, but she looks like one of the blond trophies the movie complains that first wives get dumped for. Midler and Keaton, on the other hand, are flippantly desexualized Midler by frumping herself up, Keaton with her exaggerated apologetic daze. Why the dichotomy? Where's the vision here of a middle-aged woman who's ordinary and sexy? The men who run Hollywood may be blind to everything actresses can be, but a comedy like The First Wives Club makes me think that some actresses have been seeing themselves for too long in the boys club's image. C+