The Stepford Wives
2004Director: Frank Oz
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken
he Stepford Wives in some ways represents the balancing out of the Hollywood remake pendulum. On the good side, we’ve had the entertaining and sometimes truly unnerving Dawn of the Dead, while on the bad side we’ve had just about everything else (Psycho, The Truth About Charlie, and possibly the upcoming The Manchurian Candidate). I suspect The Stepford Wives will come to represent some middle ground between the two extremes. This movie is not bad enough to work anyone into an enraged lather that Frank Oz dared to remake the 1975 original. Nor is it good enough to inspire admiration for an original re-working of an old pseudo-classic. Instead, The Stepford Wives is blandly inoffensive, occasionally entertaining, mostly dull, and thoroughly useless.
"What you have to understand is, I GOTTA HAVE MORE COWBELL!!!"
Why did anyone go to the trouble of remaking this movie? If the original benefited from anything, it was its topicality (a dark satire about the disempowering of women in the middle of feminism’s Second Wave), which almost thirty years later the new version clearly lacks. Sure, many of the old gender issues are still with us (male fears of female strength, a stereotype of women’s “roles” that Martha Stewart succeeded in updating from Suzy Homemaker) but it’s difficult to argue that what American society really needs right now is for Hollywood to beat it over the head with the bold message that blonde Betty Crocker clones in starched summer dresses don’t actually represent a healthy feminine ideal. Particularly when the message is delivered in satirical tones so broad that one wonders whether screenwriter Paul Rudnick used a pen or a ball-peen hammer to script his movie.
The plot of The Stepford Wives is probably familiar to most readers, and if it isn’t a quick glance at any commercial or trailer for the film will succeed in delivering almost the entire story arc in fifteen seconds. Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a hard-charging reality-TV executive who finds herself fired when one of her programs backfires with disastrous results. One nervous breakdown later, she and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) flee Manhattan for the cozy environs of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to rebuild their lives (and marriage) in the idyllic suburbs. Of course, something is strange in this pretty little town, as the women of Stepford all function as cookie-baking, house-cleaning, Yes-Dearing, pastel-clad sex kittens. Joanna is initially suspicious of, and later horrified by, this arrangement, in contrast to her husband, who begins to wonder if his successful, driven, and occasionally shrewish wife would make him happier as one of the creepily Donna Reed-ish clones he sees all around him.
"We'll both just smile and pretend The Wind Beneath My Wings never happened."
The original Stepford Wives played as something of a blackly comic horror film, reflecting the sense of urgency feminists felt in 1975 as the conservative male backlash washed over them. The remake is presented as a straightforward comedy, a decision whose very necessity reflects the film’s deepest problem. Society at large at least gives lip service to the notion that Ozzie & Harriet no longer rule the cultural landscape, so it is difficult to present a movie about submissive, robotic women whose chief desire is to please their husbands as anything other than a farcical notion that can be laughed at from a safe distance. Indeed, the screenwriter’s elbow can be felt digging into the filmgoer’s ribs at annoyingly regular intervals. I suppose a film with this one’s subject could have been made that undermined gender stereotypes through subtle irony or deadpan parody, but Paul Rudnick would not have been the one to write it. His obsession with achieving the knee-slapping chortle over the knowing smile just about kills whatever chance The Stepford Wives had of being an interesting comic take on male-female relationships or society’s notions of modern womanhood. Films in which you can practically smell the screenwriter’s desperation through the theater’s air conditioning system do not usually get a stamp of endorsement from me.
Despite all that, The Stepford Wives is more of an aimless nonentity than a total disaster. Rudnick does get off a few truly quality lines (“I’ve only slept with one man in my entire life, and it’s usually been Hank”), and the one man performance art that has become Christopher Walken’s movie career is always bizarrely entertaining. And the addition of a gay man to the movie’s concept is an interesting one, one that I wish had been fleshed out further. A flamboyantly outré character gets the Stepford treatment from his more conservative boyfriend, transforming from a Versace-clad ironist into a platitude-spouting Republican candidate for state senate. Rudnick, who is himself gay, may have an interesting take on how the otherwise laudable mainstreaming of homosexual culture could end up suppressing the self-expression of the people it’s intended to legitimize in the eyes of society. But that’s another question for another movie. And hopefully, a movie that’s far more interesting than The Stepford Wives.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-06-18