By Melissa Pierson
February 02, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Contrary to what Hollywood might have you believe, Thelma & Louise did not make the world safe for wronged women to take charge of their lives and fire off acid one-liners along the way. American movies, in fact, have a venerable history of jilted-wife dramas in which women take some punches but get up fighting. Would that those responsible for Something to Talk About, the Julia Roberts vehicle just out on video, had extended their research past recent memory (and that includes Thelma & Louise‘s own scripter, Callie Khouri). They might not have made so pasty a ”comedy,” or at least not one in which the characters’ wimpiness seems practically prehistoric.

As far back as 1939, women were negotiating the slippery paradox that other women were at once their closest allies and fiercest foes. In George Cukor’s glittering comedy The Women, the all-female cast trades gossip, insults, and husbands at a frenetic pace. Norma Shearer plays the far-too-virtuous wife whose husband steps out with a gold-digging salesgirl (Joan Crawford); she spends most of the movie in a dither until she takes a lesson from her sharp-clawed friends. Yet the tale is merely the dull hook on which is hung the fabulous beaded gown of female scheming, some of which lands the ladies in Reno for brief unhitchings. In The Women, divorce resulting from adultery seems like the gayest soiree in town. And the fact that men are so secondary as to be denied even a minute of screen time is this gem’s ultimate message about marriage: It’s strictly the ladies’ show.

A more sober, but no less clever, appraisal of the married woman’s lot was offered a decade later in A Letter to Three Wives. It begins when three friends (Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, and Jeanne Crain) take a day trip with some needy children (today they would forgo the charity and just go to aerobics). Just before departing they receive a tantalizingly wicked letter from the envied Addie Ross (she’s unseen, but her voice is that of Celeste Holm), who says she has left town with one of their husbands. As their day progresses, a series of flashbacks gives a glimpse into their difficult marriages. The women whose husbands have not strayed are altogether too grateful — Sothern even denouncing her careerist ideals — for this to be a feminist view of matrimony. But it is one that presents some eternal, and entertaining, truths about wedded ”bliss.”

Fast-forward to the ’70s, when movies got busy stripping the varnish off our more cherished hypocrisies. In An Unmarried Woman, Paul Mazursky’s realist look at the dissolution of a marriage, Jill Clayburgh brought its effects to near-harrowing life. In one incredible close-up, we see her face register a range of pain, surprise, and revulsion after her husband (Michael Murphy) admits he’s in love with another woman. His admission acts as a wrecking ball on the fragile snow globe of their marriage, and though she tentatively finds new hope with a handsome artist (Alan Bates), it’s clear that marriage, and life, will never be the same. No longer will she believe that security comes with a marriage license.

This is also the ostensible premise of Something to Talk About, in which Dennis Quaid (perfectly cast) favors a blond who is not his wife. Previously oblivious to her husband’s charms as well as his philandering, Julia Roberts’ Grace, a wealthy, demure Southern belle, is one day confronted by evidence of it. Apparently she feels angry and betrayed, but except for a little slamming around and a tear or two, she hardly shows it.

The movie’s utter Hollywoodization replaces genuine humor with a swift knee to Quaid’s crotch (by Grace’s sister, played by Kyra Sedgwick) and an airy sprinkling of possible causes of Grace’s trouble. Is it because of her overbearing father (Robert Duvall)? Or is it because she’s a bit ditsy? Or does it stem from the South’s culture of silent acquiescence? Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter so long as she takes the cad back but insists on pursuing a veterinary career.

Roberts herself is a more subtle problem. At one point Grace salves her pain by watching old movies with firebrand female leads, and there’s a minute of Barbara Stanwyck letting loose in California. Big mistake. Not that Roberts should be that great actress — after all, not even Stanwyck was always Stanwyck — but this type of role is all wrong for her. Her porcelain blankness does not so much project personalities as absorb them.

As Joan Crawford reputedly said, ”Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.” In films about marriage, it helps if the star can at least strike a match. Something to Talk About: C+ The Women: A A Letter to Three Wives: A- An Unmarried Woman: A-