Attack of the harpies

Girls Town and The First Wives Club celebrate female vengeance

No two films should be more dissimilar than Girls Town and The First Wives Club, which open this weekend in Dallas movie theaters. Girls Town spent most of 1996 as a hot indie flick on the festival circuit, its story of a trio of New Jersey high-school seniors who strike out in anger just weeks before their graduation having been developed in improvisational theater classes. The First Wives Club is a gaudy Hollywood package, a big-budget concept comedy that teams three veteran actresses with little box-office draw in the '90s as jilted menopausal women who make their ex-husbands' lives a living hell.

And yet, the two films are united in their attempts to push the same cultural button that transcends labels such as "independent" and "Hollywood." There is a collective sense that women have suffered a reduction in humanity throughout cinematic history because--a whole encyclopedia's worth of movies written and directed by women notwithstanding--the dominant, enduring cinematic stories have been told by men about men.

Argue all you want about the accuracy of that diagnosis; what's true is that it's perceived as reality. Women are still regarded as underdogs by much of the female population--and by a good percentage of men, as well. What you get in Girls Town and The First Wives Club are two totally different movie vocabularies applied toward the same goal of vindicating downtrodden women. The filmmakers behind both stories strive to trigger remarkably similar emotional responses in ticket buyers; the psychology behind their characters, and the assumptions made by filmmakers about the psychology of their audiences are what assign these flicks to different species. In the end, although both conjure surprisingly full-blooded female characters, neither can summon convincing dilemmas to test the mettle of these brave anti-heroines. As a result, they all wilt like paper dolls.

Girls Town is a drama with a shimmer of coolness surrounding it, winner of a filmmaker's trophy at this year's Sundance Film Festival and well-documented in the alternative press for the collaborative improv sessions that produced the final script. Director Jim McKay had only directed documentary shorts and music videos before he wrote a skeletal synopsis about the exploits of three urban American teenage girls angry about their lives.

He cast queen-bee indie actress Lili Taylor, Brucklin Harris (Zebrahead, Juice), and newcomer Anna Grace, then scheduled them for five-day-a-week bull sessions based on their characters and how they'd relate to the obstacles that confront them.

Girls Town is gritty enough in its portrayal of an unwed teenage mother with a talent for car repair and vandalism (Taylor); the smart girl accepted to Columbia who can't explain her attraction to thuggish friends (Grace); and the poetry-scribbling homegirl with a temper who can't stand when anyone, even her own mother and her brother, offers her advice.

Unfortunately, the film offers little more than the anti-style strut suggested by that adjective, "gritty." It's a syndrome that has plagued so many big winners at Robert Redford's overhyped Sundance--the chronic confusion of a good idea with a good story. Director McKay obviously believes that audiences will hear tales of improvisational rehearsals, be duly impressed, and surrender their judgment at the start of his rambling, street-wise adventure.

And if this had been a one-woman show by Lili Taylor, some of us would be willing to make the leap. Whip smart, subdued, intuitive Taylor easily ranks among the best film performers working today, and she dominates Girls Town with another acute portrayal. When she and her homegirls are hanging out in the rest room, scribbling graffiti and bullshitting about boyfriends, math tests, and the prom, the film crackles with electricity. Unfortunately, after the suicide of a dear friend results in the discovery that she was raped, which in turn prompts one member of the trio to admit she also has been assaulted, the improvisational quality sours into what feels like a prefab consciousness-raising. The reason for this is simple: Newcomer Anna Grace, who plays the surviving rape victim, is in way over her head alongside Taylor and Harris. Her confession has the tentative, whiny quality of a girl who may have confused an unpleasant sexual experience with a brutal assault; the performer registers no discernible trauma at this horrible crime. We automatically grant her sympathy at the drop of the "R" word, but she frankly doesn't earn it with this weak performance.

The suicide of a friend (the uncredited Stockard Channing) is also what spurs the formation of The First Wives Club, a series of snazzy one-liners in desperate search of an original idea to unite them. The bad news turns out to be the good news: Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton indeed play to type as, respectively, a brassy Jewish-Italian housewife, a self-absorbed movie queen, and a neurotic career woman, but they all possess more energy and confidence playing these predictable roles than we've seen from them in years. The script fails to match their enthusiasm with its patched-together tales of vengeance accomplished with curious ease. Screenwriter Robert Harling doesn't bother with too many details of financial mismanagement and maneuvering, because his seasoned comediennes will supply the gas to make this vehicle go. They do, but by the abrupt and rather forced song-and-dance number that closes this flaccid comedy, the noxious fumes of self-satisfaction leak out and stink up the theater. Midler, Hawn, and Keaton, who have been so damned grateful for every minute of screen time, wear out their welcome in a big way.

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