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Bethany Whitmore and Debra Messing in 'The Starter Wife'
Bethany Whitmore, left, as Jaden Kagan and Debra Messing as Molly Kagan in "The Starter Wife." (Paul A. Broben/USA Network via AP)
TELEVISION REVIEW

'Starter Wife' has that old familiar ring

Reader, are you sitting down? Guess what: Hollywood is filled with clawing women who'd just as soon have a pedicure as help a friend. Their movie-exec husbands, meanwhile, compare weekend grosses and take up with Britneys from the 18-24 demo. Yes, Tinseltown is as hollow as an air kiss. The very same town that gave us Lindsay Lohan has . . . no . . . soul.

What? You're not surprised? Then USA's "The Starter Wife" may hit you as it hit me: Restating the obvious, dredging up "First Wives Club" clichés for six thin hours, beginning tonight at 9. The only person on earth who seems truly thrown by the famous phoniness of the film biz is our guide through the plastic jungle, Debra Messing's Molly Kagan, who is dumped by her producer husband Kenny (Peter Jacobson) and then stiffed by the other wives.

Unplugged from her power source, Molly is now just another loser to them. A wealthy, gorgeous loser, of course, with a killer wardrobe, great core strength, and an enviably visible sternum. But still, Molly no longer has access to TomKat, or Tom and Rita. She is no one.

And so "The Starter Wife" asks, Will Molly ever get a lunch reservation in this town again? Shouldn't the question be, " How fast can Molly catch the next train out? " But the movie, directed by Jon Avnet, is too bland and fangless to hit any real nerves. It's only going through the motions of trashing Hollywood. Based on the 2005 novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, wife of producer Brian Grazer, "The Starter Wife" is like a humdrum, trite, overlong Jackie Collins novel -- redundancies intended. We've seen these movie-business cut-out characters and foolish plot turn many, many times before.

Molly, her 5-year-old daughter, Jaden, and her nanny camp out at a friend's oceanfront home in Malibu until the divorce settlement. Molly pines for Cricket (Miranda Otto), the fair-weather friend who deserted her, and she does manage to get seated at an exclusive sushi restaurant thanks to the cachet of her husband's menschy boss, Lou (Joe Mantegna).

With shades of "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," Molly falls for a handsome beach bum named Sam (British actor Stephen Moyer, doing his best Aaron Eckhart). He rescues her after she falls out of her canoe, and canoodling ensues. She also dabbles in female self-empowerment with drunk friend Joan, played with acid punch by Judy Davis, and a financially hurting security guard at Joan's gated community.

Oh yes, and Molly has a Requisite Gay Best Friend Who Is A Decorator With Fabulous Taste. Named Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos), he is the, um, Will to her Grace.

After tonight's two-hour episode, USA will air the four remaining hours over the next four weeks. To fill the time, the movie coughs up feeble subplots for these secondary characters. Cricket's director husband has an affair. Rodney has financial troubles. And Joan gets thrown into rehab by her husband. Davis has the best scene in the movie, when Joan fools her therapist by inventing an abusive sister named Bambi and gets Messing to pretend to be her. But, well, six hours is six hours, even with Davis.

And as for Messing, well, she's the movie's saving grace. She was a strong member of the "Will & Grace" ensemble, although at times she was wound too tightly. In "The Starter Wife," she appears to enjoy the chance to take her time, without rigid sitcom pacing, and she makes Molly as appealing as she can be. Beneath her preternaturally red hair and all the fine couture, beneath the movie's half-hearted poking at Hollywood, Messing is always recognizable as a real person.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

'Related'

The Starter Wife

Starring: Debra Messing, Judy Davis, Peter Jacobson, Miranda Otto, Joe Mantegna, Chris Diamantopoulos, Stephen Moyer

On: USA Network

Time: Tonight, 9-11

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