Meek Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick, "Election") wants a new life for his family after his wife, a once powerful network exec whose miscalculations cost her her job, suffers a nervous breakdown. New York City is left behind for the gated Connecticut community of Stepford, a utopia of McMansions and 1950s ideals. Walter's wife Joanna (Nicole Kidman, "Cold Mountain") tries to fit in, but she just cannot fathom "The Stepford Wives."
This completes what I hope is Nicole Kidman's trifecta of duds, following her miscast custodial worker of "The Human Stain" and her designer Civil War sufferer in "Cold Mountain." Director Frank Oz ("The Score," "Bowfinger") goes for breezy comedy over the original's satiric horror and screenwriter Paul Rudnick's ("Isn't She Great") update of the Ira Levin ("Rosemary's Baby") book is but a long-winded, eighty minute setup for one elaborate, climatic Martha Stewart joke.
The film's creepiest element is its opening credit montage of 1950s 'kitchens of the future' footage where June Cleeverish women exult over the joys of automated housework. It then segues into something approaching sharp satire as a fist-punching Joanna Eberhart addresses a convention of network affiliate execs with her new lineup of emasculating reality shows. When one of her show's losers (Mike White) shows up and attempts to assassinate her before doing himself and is family in, an uncomprehending Joanna is fired.
Walter quits his job at the same network and delivers his comatose wife to her new home and the welcoming arms of realtor Claire Wellington (Glenn Close playing Cruella Deville broad like a mummified drag queen). Walter loves attending the Men's Association club house, run by Claire's husband Mike (Christopher Walken underplaying his usual weirdness in a role that demanded it), but Joanna won't accept membership at the Stepford Spa, where women 'exercise' by aping household appliances in heels and pearls, nor is she stimulated by a book club that treasures the best collection of Christmas crafts over a presidential biography. Joanna finds compatriots in irreverent Jewish author Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler, "Isn't She Great") and flamboyantly gay Roger Bannister (Roger Bart, "The Insider"), but soon Bobbi is baking away in a pristine home and Roger has buttoned up to run for the State Senate.
Director Frank Oz ("The Score," "Bowfinger") just doesn't seem right for this material, although he had something going in the opening "Network" segment with Kidman in the field she wanted "To Die For." Things get mired down in the obvious as soon as Joanna and Walter attend a Stepford social function and witness Sarah Sunderson (prominently billed, but blink or you'll miss her Faith Hill) go haywire on the dance floor. 'She was sparking!' Joanna protests when Walter offers reassurances. There are occasional laughs mostly provided by Midler's caustic observations (her participation in the book club gathering is priceless), but for the most part, the film is as deadeningly dull as its plasticine wives. Rudnick's addition of a gay character as one of the 'wives' was a nice touch, but he abuses his central husband by jerking Walter's motivations hither and yon in order to make his plot work.
The film has a glossy look courtesy of Jackson De Govia ("The Score")'s Home and Gardens production design. Ann Roth's over the top costumes find a better fit here than her work in "Cold Mountain."
In 1975 a new slang term came to be to describe the automaton mentality that began to pervade America as the “me generation” got under way. Now, nearly 30 years later, director Frank Oz and scripter Paul Rudnick update novelist Ira Levin’s darkly satiric work and give it, and the term, a happy face in “The Stepford Wives.”
The earlier film adaptation of Levin’s novel maintained the savage satire of the source work and, while not a great film, “The Stepford Wives (1975)” did make a chilling statement about American culture and the selfish abuse of technology, especially in its closing, shocking moments. Paul Rudnick’s new rework of the Levin book eschews the high tech horror of women turned into robotic pleasure machines and gives a bright, cheery spin to the Levin story.
Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a top flight TV network exec who is on the fast track. Her reality-based programs are a big hit and, as she gives a speech to her industry colleagues, she shows an excerpt from her latest brainchild, a TV show called “I Can Do Better!” The program brings a couple to an idyllic setting and sets them off, separately, to the temptations of utter hedonism. The audience watches as the guy (Mike White) tells how he was tempted by the beautiful prostitute and chance for guiltless sex, but refused to be unfaithful. His wife, however, threw herself headlong into an orgy of pleasure and dumps her hubby in favor of sexy fun.
As Joanna continues her presentation, the guy emerges from the audience and demands that she make things right, pulls a gun and tries to kill the TV exec. Eberhart sees this as just a tiny bump in her career road until she learns that he shot his ex-wife and five of her lovers. The network can’t afford such a costly legal scandal and Joanna is unceremoniously fired. She falls into a state of deep depression until her husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), comes up with the plan to get out of the heartless city and move to the kinder and gentler community of Stepford, Connecticut.
Things appear to be perfect in the beautiful and peaceful town as Joanna and her family move into a huge, fully automated house (the refrigerator even tells you when you need milk). But, as they get to know the place, Joanna begins to notice decidedly strange behavior among the feminine population of Stepford. Every woman in town - except for Joanna and two other newcomers, Bobbi (Bette Midler) and Roger (Roger Bart) (he is half of a gay couple) – dresses to the nines and are fanatical about cooking, cleaning and pleasuring their husbands. To Joanna, they seem to care only about trivial matters and she smells a rat when one of the wives, literally, has a short circuit during a community square dance.
Joanna realizes that something wicked this way has come when slovenly, earthy Bobbi turns into the perfect, neat wife and flamboyantly gay Roger dons a conservative business suit and announces his run for the state senate. She demands that Walter take her and their kids away from the sinister town and he agrees (a bit too quickly). He arranges a meeting between Joanna and the men of Stepford, headed by Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), and she learns the truth about the community.
With a few computer chips, specially programmed and placed in strategic parts of the Stepford wives brains, the men have created the perfect spouses. Every one of the ladies had powerful and influential positions in their previous lives – CEOs, corporate executives, judges, even the head of a major airline. Now, with the technology developed by their envious husbands, the wives have become docile, compliant and willing to do their spouses’ every bidding. Thus confronted and surrounded, Joanna has little choice but to comply with the male majority rule.
Having seen the ’75 version of “The Stepford Wives,” I was surprised to learn that Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick had signed up to do the remake. The earlier work was dark and edgy and ended on a downbeat and ominous note. I couldn’t envision the new team putting the same kind of spin on the remake. Guess what? They didn’t. The new “Stepford Wives” does away with any of the cautionary edge the first adaptation had and replaces it with silly humor and the easy to take tale of good guys triumphing over bad guys. The result is a shallow puff piece that goes for cheap laughs, bright colors and kitschy settings. Scribe Rudnick strips away any of the horror of the first and, instead of a chilling ending, has things all neatly wrapped up in the end. The filmmakers take the quick and easy lighthearted path instead of mining the original material for the scare factor and social commentary of life in America.
Performances from most of the actors could have been phoned in and only Midler and Roger Bart have enough to do to give Bobbi and Roger dimension and humor. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, two fine character actors, are handed roles that are not nearly a stretch for either actor and they walk through their respective roles. The cast of the Stepford wives provide attractive players but all are generic. The Stepford husbands are also little more than background characters, with the exception of John Lovitz as Bobbi’s irreverent husband. Kidman’s character could have been played by any competent actress and reps, as far as I can tell, just a paycheck for the Oscar winning Nicole.
Techs, as one would expect in a Frank Oz film, are of high quality. The sets and production design give the town a richness that, unfortunately, is too bright and cheerful. Costumes, especially for the wives, do hit the mark with the colorful pastels and feminine lines. Camera, by Rob Hahn, is straightforward and gets the job done.
There were one or two laughs for me during the course of “The Stepford Wives” and a couple of chuckles, too. But, the lack of edge and the blandness of the comedy represent a missed opportunity for a biting satire that could have overshadowed the original. As it stands, I’d rather watch the first one again. I give it a C.
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