Sisterhood, Hollywood style

The First Wives Club Hugh Wilson (PG)
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The First Wives Club may have stormed the box-office in America, but don't get your hopes up too high. It's not much more than a variation on Nine to Five, with the object of revenge switched from a single boss to multiple husbands. The heroines are a similar group: instead of Jane Fonda as a nervous doormat, here we have Diane Keaton. As sexpot, Goldie Hawn replaces Dolly Parton. For Lily Tomlin read Bette Midler, in the homely role.

The film is aimed squarely at women of the baby-boom generation, and talks their language. The emotional progress of the heroines is traced in Sixties music, from the thrilled submissiveness of "Time To Get Ready For Love" (title sequence) to the ingratiating defiance of "You Don't Own Me" (closing number).

In terms of its plot, The First Wives Club harks back to an earlier age of Hollywood drama. A middle-aged woman in marital despair throws herself off her balcony, after sending letters to her three best friends from college. These three, reunited, set out to find less drastic solutions to their own problems. They discover, in effect, feminist solidarity, though it's more that they invent something that didn't previously exist. Not only have they not kept in touch with each other or the dead woman over the past quarter century, but they have no female friends either. They are entirely taken up with husbands and family. Career takes third place, except for the sexpot film star, who is childless.

The director, Hugh Wilson, was responsible for the first Police Academy, so there is a certain amount of mediocre slapstick involving, for instance, the three women losing control of a window cleaning gondola outside a penthouse. The screenwriter Robert Harling, adapting Olivia Goldsmith's novel, has a surer touch. He wrote Steel Magnolias and knows that people will put up with a lot of female bonding as long as there are occasional bitch fights and regular savage one-liners.

Diane Keaton is the moderate, the peace-maker, and gets the consolation prize of the voice-over. Goldie Hawn gets some good fierce lines, as when she describes the three ages of women in Hollywood as "Babe, District Attorney and... Driving Miss Daisy", but she lacks the self-parodying verve of, say, Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous. The most satisfying invective, unsurprisingly, comes out of Bette Midler's mouth.

Midler remains, though, a puzzling performer. When she started out, on stage, she was independent in an old-fashioned way, cheerfully a broad rather than a fantasy object. She seemed to see the world in terms of Vaudeville rather than soap opera. But in her film career she tends to offer an unappetising mixture of the brassy and the whiny - as if Mae West were trying to get in touch with her inner child. What this means for The First Wives Club is that she has difficulty with the character's moment of personal growth. There is the usual cascade of such moments. Diane Keaton's character must learn to stop apologising for herself (and in return, her controlling mother must learn to stop undermining her). Hawn's character must learn to trust the others, and to stop drinking - though this must be the most abrupt shedding of an addiction even in the movies, a conversion to sobriety without support groups even starker than the women's collective conversion to female solidarity without recourse to the culture of feminism.

Midler's personal growth moment requires that she absorb an emotion rather than broadcast it. She must conceal from her son that her ex-husband's engagement is news to her, too. The camera fastens on Midler's face, waiting for her to go inward. But she has spent her film career rushing full tilt in the opposite direction. Nothing happens. Audiences may even assume that she's drawing breath for a screech, and then the scene is over.

It's characteristically formulaic that The First Wives Club should end with its heroines having made different accommodations to their new set of possibilities: one reunited with her husband, but on her terms; one embarking on an affair; and one enjoying her independence, rejecting all offers. It's amazing what a few months can do, when you think that they learnt precisely nothing from the 75 years of marriage they racked up between them.

And now they want to give something back, to reach out to women less lucky, or less privileged than themselves. There seems no logic to this - if the three had no help, in what sense are they giving something back? - but the feel-good factor is as crucial at the box-office as it is at the polling booth. They set up a Women's Centre as a memorial to their friend the suicide.

The gala opening of the centre allows the film to end with a little slurry of diversity, a slightly broader mix of classes and ethnicities, though everyone who attends seems to have somewhere safe to go after the consultation. Two famous female faces put in appearances at the party, a pair which neatly sums up the film's notion of its target audience. Gloria Steinem merely listens, and nods appreciatively, while Ivana Trump has a line of dialogue - the line that happens to be on the film's posters: Don't get mad, get everything. If Ivana Trump is an icon of women's independence, then was it, perhaps, Zsa Zsa Gabor who wrote The Female Eunuch?n

On general release tomorrow