"The First Wives Club" is sure to hit a nerve with women the same way "9 to 5" did, with its liberating, take-no-prisoners feminist sensibility. But men needn't shy away from what they may perceive as a "chick flick." It's very funny in a universal way . . . unless, of course, you're a "deadbeat dad."

Another "9 to 5" comparison comes with the peculiar matching of the female stars. You may recall that when Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin teamed up for "9 to 5," it initially seemed to be an odd mix, but they worked together surprisingly well. Similarly, Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton may seem to be an unlikely trio, but they also prove to have great chemistry together.

And each is in top form, as ex-wives who are brought together via a "Big Chill" plot device, the funeral of an old school chum who leaps from a high-rise after fumbling in love and marriage.

Midler plays a tough, blue-collar homemaker whose husband (Dan Hedaya) is a high-rolling appliance dealer; Keaton is a timid, pampered housewife whose husband (Stephen Collins) is a high-rolling advertising executive; and Hawn is a spoiled movie star whose husband (Victor Garber) is a high-rolling studio honcho. Each has played a significant role in their respective husbands' achievements, of course. And each has been unceremoniously dumped in favor of a younger woman.

The plot is simple enough — they get together after many years, commiserate as they renew their friendship, and after a time, they vow to get revenge on their exes. Eventually, they form the title organization and work together toward that end.

The rest is cheerful, old-fashioned, door-slamming farce, and considering how many misfires in this genre show up these days, it's a pleasure to report that "The First Wives Club" pulls it off pretty well.

Slapstick and wisecracks abound, as director Hugh Wilson ("Guarding Tess," TV's "WKRP in Cincinnati," the first "Police Academy") marks a return to form, with this witty, timely effort, written by Robert Harling ("Steel Magnolias," "Soapdish," the upcoming "The Evening Star").

If we really need to rank them, Midler comes off best, easily the best developed character of the trio, with her razor-sharp wit in optimum form. Next would be Kea-ton, who uncharacteristically cuts loose and goes over the top as a mouse that roars. And then Hawn, who seems to be parodying herself, but with good material that she plays to the hilt.

The film is a bit character-heavy, with a lot of supporting roles filled by familiar faces (including un-billed roles by Sarah Jessica Parker, Collins, Stockard Channing, Rob Reiner and several celebrity cameos). And inevitably, some, like Maggie Smith, are underused.

This one is a real audience-pleaser, and it will no doubt be the first big hit of the fall.

"The First Wives Club" is also that rarity, a PG-rated movie for adults. And it's pretty tame, with a few vulgar gags, some violence, a single profanity and a nude painting. (There is also a scene in a lesbian nightclub, which is surprisingly tasteful in its handling.)

Assuming this one does hit it big, here's hoping Hollywood learns a lesson about how unnecessary it is to be overly vulgar in modern movies. A little subtlety restraint can go a long way toward currying audience favor.