The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, September 25, 1996         TAG: 9609250029
TYPE: Movie Review 
                                            LENGTH:   74 lines


A SOCIETY in which sweet, and some not-so-sweet, young things replace first wives gets sporadically lambasted in the commercial hit ``The First Wives Club.'' The movie is made-to-order for all miffed women and is carefully balanced to allow men to tag along.

Although it is marred by a second half that goes markedly astray, ``First Wives Club'' is blessed with a star trio that goes all-out to entertain. Bette Midler (the loud, brash one), Goldie Hawn (the aging movie star with plastic lips) and Diane Keaton (the sweet wallflower) play wives who have been discarded for younger models. They obviously enjoy working together and, refreshingly, there is no hint of scene-stealing or ego unplesantness. The chemistry between the three is the film's saving quality.

Midler plays Brenda, a woman who once worked behind the cash register as she set her husband (Dan Hedaya) up in the electronics business. Now, he's taken the money and set up housekeeping with new squeeze Sarah Jessica Parker.

Hawn plays Elise Atchison, an Oscar-winning actress who is obsessed with aging, even though she looks like a starlet. Her lips, as well as other parts of her anatomy, have been surgically aided. (``Honey, she's a quilt,'' Midler quips). Elise, though, sees Hollywood as one of three roles: ``babe, district attorney or``Driving Miss Daisy.'' She's getting offered mother roles and her hubby (a smug Victor Garber) wants her to pay alimony so that he can cast his young starlet (Elizabeth Berkley, making a clothed comeback after the ``Showgirls'' fiasco).

Perhaps the best, most consistently believable characterization is contributed by Keaton as a ditzy but shy homebody who still hopes that her husband, Stephen Collins, will return. Instead, he's taken up with their joint therapist (Marcia Gay Harden, an alumnus of Virginia Stage Company).

The girls, who were all close chums back when they graduated from Middlebury College in 1969, haven't seen each other in years until they reunite to attend the funeral of Stockard Channing, who commits suicide over a wandering hubby.

The bitchy dialogue is delightfully spontaneous as they dish each other as much as they do the hubbys. The film is remarkably non-brittle - lacking the male-bashing seriousness of something like ``How to Make an American Quilt.'' Markedly softening the hard edges of Olivia Goldsmith's novel, this is closer to ``9 to 5'' than it is ``Waiting to Exhale.''

Director Hugh Wilson (who lives in Charlottesville) allows the pace to get frantic in the second half. Revenge is required but the film can't seem to stick to real, recognizable life in its choices. It goes haywire in a series of hit-or-miss skits that resemble television sitcom ploys more than a coherent script. The trio ends up establishing a crisis center for women in what amounts to a contrived, and overly wholesome, ending.

There is some fun in spotting a large cast of supportive players. Eileen Heckart (Oscar winner for ``Butterflies are Free'') is Keaton's wacky mom. Bronson Pinchot is an interior decorator. Philip Bosco is Midler's uncle, a mafia don who offers to ``take care of'' the erring husband in abrupt terms.

``First Wives Club'' is a delightful setup that can't seem to find a way to develop itself into a coherent script. When the three stars break into a chorus of Lesley Gore's ``You Don't Own Me'' the feeling is so exuberant that it doesn't seem to matter whether they have a plot or not.

There are enough good laughs to make even the frantic second half palpable. ILLUSTRATION: [Color Photo]


The chemistry among Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn makes

the film.


``The First Wives Club''

Cast: Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton

Director: Hugh Wilson

Screenplay: Robert Harling, based on the novel by Olivia


MPAA rating: PG (some mild language)

Mal's rating: *** by CNB