There are a few fair-to-middling quips in The First Wives Club (PG). Not many more than a few, though. Actually, it should be possible to squeeze most of them into a single paragraph, thus: frustrated 50-ish actress bemoans the fact that the only female roles recognised by Hollywood are "babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy". (Conversely, Sean Connery "is 300 years old but he's still a stud".) Same actress to her plastic surgeon, re her new collagen lip- implants: "Fill 'em up!" Angry girl to mother: "You've been with that man again!" Mother's reply: "I'm sorry, but he is your father." Yes, those are about as witty as they come. You have just been saved around six or seven quid, not counting babysitter's fees. Don't mention it.

Hollywood may have gone against its habitually misogynist grain by providing three sizeable comic roles for actresses of a certain age, but if you're expecting any savour of fin de siecle feminism more bracing than that peddled in, say, Nine to Five (which has much the same fundamental revenge premise), you'd be better off perusing the writings of Gloria Steinem. Who is, curiously, one of the celebs appearing as themselves, others being Ivana Trump (allocated the movie's poster tag-line, "Don't get mad. Get everything") and former mayor Ed Koch. For a film about female self-empowerment and all that jargon, it's immoderately fond of scenes in which its leading ladies squeal and bitch and flap and prove themselves incapable of operating heavy machinery, the pretty dears.

On the credit side, the starring trio of Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler struggle womanfully to enliven a slothful script. Goldie Hawn's turn, in particular, as the boozy glamour-puss hauling perilously close to district- attorney time, rescues the film from the doldrums more frequently than it deserves. Apart from delivering her crowd-tickling lines with due lack of inhibition, she submits bravely to some grossly unflattering close-ups, and prances through the first two-thirds of the film slathered with a garish lipstick that makes her lips appear every bit as over-pumped as those of an unreconstructed (make that "heavily reconstructed") cosmetic-surgery freak should be.

With slightly classier raw material, the three performers might have served up a satisfying, maybe even stinging, romp. But if the comedy isn't as coarse as you'd expect from its director's track record (Hugh Wilson created the Police Academy series), it drifts in that direction, and the plot, which begins in relatively plausible high-societal observation, soon takes off - again like Nine to Five - into a silly wish-fulfilment fantasy. After a brief overture set in 1969, when a quartet of promising co-eds are about to graduate from college, the action skips forward to the present day, when the wealthiest and unhappiest of the now middle- aged four celebrates her former husband's marriage to a young beauty by hurling herself from a balcony.

Her funeral provides the occasion for a reunion between Brenda (Midler), Elise (Hawn) and Annie (Keaton); also for the first in a series of thumpingly telegraphed jokes. "You don't know what Gil [the widower] is feeling right now," one guest admonishes her neighbour, who hisses that the man has a nerve to show up at his ex-wife's funeral with his luscious new wifeling; a close-up of the man's surreptitious hand shows us exactly what he is feeling right now. What larks. Next, a protracted and increasingly alcoholic post-funeral lunch between the three reunited survivors reveals that each of them is suffering from the same affliction that did for their friend - they have all been traded in by their scummy old husbands for younger, svelter models. After a couple of reels for the ladies to stew up to boiling point, they gird their loins, found the First Wives Club, and, with a bit of help from the Mafia, Maggie Smith (squandered in teasingly brief appearances) and an auction at Christie's, have soon destroyed their old spouses and built their lives anew.

Just about passable as a swift outline, it's less than nimble in execution. Every minor twist in the plot is set up so ham-fistedly that you can't quite credit that it won't turn out to be a double-bluff. Example: Annie twitters merrily about how wonderful it is that she and her estranged husband are seeing the same therapist. In due course, the camera introduces us to said therapist by leering up her shapely legs and microscopic skirt. Could it possibly be that the husband is seeing this analyst for more than the classic Freudian 50 minutes a session? Alas, it could. A spirit of scrupulous fairness compels the admission that one or two members of the preview audience were lapping this old tat up noisily, which just goes to show that you can never go too far wrong with jokes about camp interior decorators. There must have been divorces funnier than this film.

Most Royal Command movies are notable less for their quality than their studied inoffensiveness, which makes this year's offering, True Blue (15), a classic of its kind. It has nothing worse than a joke about urinating in beer and a few naked male situpons to bring a blush to the cheek of a Highness, and nothing better than a bunch of clean-limbed chaps being clean-limbed to recommend it. Based on Daniel Topolski's book about the Oxford University Boat Race "mutiny" of 1987, it huffs and puffs to squeeze dramatic tension and Chariots of Fire uplift from the activities of a bunch of varsity oarsmen, who spend more time rowing-rhymes-with-ploughing than rowing-rhymes-with-hoeing.

A few sports movies - Robert Towne's Personal Best, for example - manage to worm their way so deep into the competitive drives of their characters that it's possible to be thrilled by the spectacle of fictitious contests whose real-life versions might bore you rigid. Unless you're already besotted by the mystique of the annual Thames set-to, however, or have had your higher brain functions stoved in by too many boat-club dinners, True Blue will seem only fractionally more pulse-boosting than a whist drive, and all the scenes in which noble blokes shout furiously at each other or agonise over the ethics of it all will look jolly embarrassing. Cruel to allocate responsibility for this lame duck, and my abhorrence of nepotism in all its ugly forms prevents me from drawing so much as the slightest attention to a charismatic minor performance by my old pal Jonathan Cake as Patrick Conner, "the heaviest stroke in Boat Race history".

Another film based on real-life events, Yim Ho's The Day the Sun Went Cold (12) is an imposingly bleak story about a young man, his head possibly twisted by reading trashy detective magazines, who accuses his mother of having murdered his father some 10 years before. Most of the film is a flashback to the events leading up to this suspicious death, though it might as well be a flashback to the 18th century, so little has technology impinged on the lives of villagers in the remote north-eastern district of China where the family lives and peddles bean curd. The element of whodunit, or didshedoit, is plainly less important to the director than the emotional turmoil of mother and son; to Western eyes, it has the sombre force of a folk tale, if not always the excitement. It's also quite beautiful, in a barren way.

The distributors made an eleventh-hour decision to pull The Island of Dr Moreau (12) from the national press screenings, which is a shame, since the prospect of seeing Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis and company having a stab at H G Wells's old warhorse (and other species of mutated quadrupeds) was rather appealing. However, since I have not seen it and know very little about it, I appear to be admirably well qualified to demand that this repellent and perverted film be banned.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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