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First Wives Club

By Lizzie Borden | PaEHba Day | November 18, 2009 |

By Lizzie Borden | PaEHba Day | November 18, 2009 |

I rewatched The First Wives Club to write this review the other night with a little bit of trepidation. I remembered it fondly, but had only seen it once, way back when it was released in 1996. I was prepared for it to be pretty terrible; a schmaltzy, sappy festival of triteness and clichéd “women’s” stories. But yanno, it really isn’t. It’s sentimental without being schmaltzy, and it’s feel-good without being sappy. I was pleasantly relieved as I finished the film.

The film starts out with a brief flashback to establish the friendship of four women graduating college in the 60s. They’re bright-eyed and eager to go out and—what? Change the world? Maybe not so much, as they all end up married (by which I do not mean to imply that married women can’t change the world). Even in the 60s, despite the strides that had been made, most women still went on to settle down into marriage and home life, supporting their men and raising families. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. On the other hand, it is the women of this generation and the next who really began the whole feminist movement. So yay for that, right?

(Do I need to warn you that there are going to be spoilers? You’ve had 13 years to see this movie. If you haven’t yet, do you really care?)

That brings us forward to the present day, with Stockard Channing (whom I adore. I mean, this is Abby Bartlett we’re talking about here), who is clearly at the end of her tether and a complete wreck. She is the grown version of Cynthia, and she’s about to commit suicide.

This event is the catalyst for the rest of the plot: Annie, Brenda and Elise meet again for the first time in Godtopussy knows how long at Cynthia’s funeral. All of them, as it turns out, have recently been dumped by their husbands. Annie (Diane Keaton), the doormat, insists that things are going to work out, mostly because … well, she’s a doormat, and she has deluded herself into thinking that her husband is the entirety of her life. She’s one of those women — no self-esteem, no real identity. Even her daughter thinks her own father is scum and doesn’t deserve her mother. Elise (Goldie Hawn) is an aging movie star, and the film points out what happens to most women of middle age in Hollywood: They disappear. She’s desperate to stay young to the point of obsession. (Thankfully, Maggie Smith is in the film to play New York Society and prove that this isn’t always entirely true. Also, there’s the existence of this film in general: all three of the leads are women who are generally overlooked by Hollywood, and all three of them remain ridiculously famous.) And Brenda (Bette Midler) is The Mom. She’s had her whole life wrapped up in supporting her husband’s goals and raising his child, to the point where she let herself go entirely. And then her husband dumped her for a younger model (uh, Sarah Jessica Parker, whom I really can’t hate. Sorry guys).

In fact, all of the husbands in this film have dumped their wives for younger models. Annie’s husband is sleeping with their therapist (I’ll not even go into the ethics of that), Elise’s husband is sleeping with an ingénue actress (shocker!), and Brenda’s is sleeping with his ex-secretary (klassy, hat is). So they get together and decide to enact revenge/justice on their husbands. They form the First Wives Club. They enlist the help of Maggie Smith’s character (who’s been a first, and a second, and a third wife…), as well as a number of other wacky folks. Dirt isn’t hard to dig up on Brenda’s husband; it turns out he got his start selling electronics that fell off the back of trucks, according to Brenda’s Uncle Carmine (uh, do I need to explain that means the stuff was stolen?). So they concoct a scheme to get a hold of Morty’s books.

Elise’s husband is insisting during divorce proceedings that all of their joint property be sold and the proceeds be split evenly (he also wants alimony, since she’s the famous one). When Annie finds out that her husbands business partners want out of their ad agency, Elise sells her all of said joint property and Annie auctions it all off—most of it to Morty’s dumb blonde girlfriend, who is redecorating their penthouse with the help of Brenda’s friend the terrible interior decorator — it’s schemes within schemes in this film, I swear.

So Annie buys two thirds of her husband’s ad agency. When he threatens to walk, she shrugs, as she’s just landed a 45 million dollar account—that would be Morty’s, as Brenda has blackmailed him into handing over the control of his company. It’s either that, or he goes to prison. A little tweaking of a yearbook, and Elise has her own husband under her thumb for threatened charges of statutory rape.

Honestly, I would kinda love it if this movie ended with the revenge. But the three women are actually not all evil harpies. Yeah, they want to get back at their husbands, and yeah, they do end up taking control of these companies, and with it their own lives, but they realize that they want more than that as well. So they decide to use their powers for good as well, and start a shelter in honor of Cynthia.

Does the film have problems? Sure it does. But they’re not so huge as to distract from the fun of it. It’s really just a fun movie about three women who learn that life doesn’t end when you hit middle age, as long as you don’t let it. While I don’t feel like it’s a “message movie,” it celebrates women and the friendships we forge with each other. And that’s something I, for one, can get behind.

Lizzie Borden has an extensive axe collection, and lives in Baltimore. She wants a purple pony (with wings, please) and a two-headed axe for Christmas. She also wishes she had more Pajiba-time these days, and is quite proud to be a part of Paheeba Day this year.

This post is part of Paheeba Day 2009. An explanation of Paheeba Day can be found in the Pajiba Dictionary.