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With: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz
Written by: Paul Rudnick, based on the novel by Ira Levin
Directed by: Frank Oz
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material & language
Running Time: 92
Date: 06/05/2004

The Stepford Wives (2004)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Cracking 'Wives'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The litmus test for a modern remake is still David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). In the years since the 1958 original, science and society had evolved such that the story could be improved upon and updated. Few remakes surpass their original but some create equally strong films by going off in different directions, like Don Siegel's The Killers, Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors or Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear. Now in a year jam-packed with remakes, we have yet another bad one, The Stepford Wives.

This film, based on Ira Levin's novel, adapted by Paul Rudnick and directed by Frank Oz, certainly tries a new direction, but the basis for the story is still stuck in the '70s. Today it simply doesn't make any sense.

The 1975 film, adapted by William Goldman and directed by Bryan Forbes, treated the story as horror, saving the most astonishing surprise twist until the finale. Now the film is a comedy and the surprise is revealed during the first act. Rudnick and Oz have tried to come up with a new surprise to replace it, but it's so darned pathetic that they ought to be ashamed for even thinking of it.

The story begins with a high-powered Manhattan television executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) who has created a series of women-power reality shows. The threat of a vicious lawsuit costs her the job and so she, along with her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and her two kids, packs up and moves to Stepford, Connecticut.

In Stepford, all the women wear short house dresses and high heels and most of them are blonde. They walk like slow-motion runway models, giggle at the slightest provocation and thrill at serving their husbands. Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) is their leader, running silly exercise classes and book clubs.

Joanna quickly finds two "normal" friends, a best-selling non-fiction author Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler) and a gay architect Roger Bannister (Broadway star Roger Bart), but they, too are soon turned into robotic Better Homes & Gardens clones.

Walter joins a men's club run by Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) and soon learns of his nefarious plot to turn all the women into happy housewives, thereby making the husbands feel more manly and making the world a better place.

When Levin wrote The Stepford Wives, it was a tongue-in-cheek response to the newfound Women's Lib movement. It played upon men's fears that they were losing their power now that women were breadwinners. This fear was beautifully expressed in Dylan Kidd's recent Roger Dodger. But haven't we moved on from this bygone era of Betty Crocker and subservient wives? Why did we need this film in 2004?

Rudnick and Oz fail to justify themselves at every turn. When Walter asks Joanna why she loves him, she can't answer, calling him goofy and sweet and saying finally, "you're my Walter!" She asserts that men should consider themselves lucky to have landed such fantastic, powerful women, but the filmmakers don't back her up.

Oz usually has a jaunty, breezy filmmaking style with a sense for comic pauses and a flair for darkness, as shown in films like Little Shop of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (two successful remakes) or Bowfinger. He gives the new film a bright, pink-tinged look but doesn't quite manage to imply the menace underneath. It's as if he's baffled by the humor; he bends over backward to explain it all to us as he goes.

He's not helped by Rudnick, a great gag writer but a poor script writer. Rudnick contributes half-a-dozen real laughs in the film, but they're all one-liners completely disassociated from the story. Rudnick has no interest in figuring out why he's telling his story, nor does he particularly associate with any of the characters -- except for the gay architect and Midler's diva. He can't even be bothered to explain how Walter and Joanna can afford their new mansion without jobs and what the kids think of all this (they've suddenly gone off to camp).

The army of people responsible for sustaining Nicole Kidman's image has even missed the point. In the film's early scenes Kidman looks skinny, haggard, pinched and drained. She has a short little flip of dark hair and looks like she's about to explode. Later, she sports a mane of gorgeous blonde hair and looks relaxed for the first time. And the film is using this latter image -- the "Stepford" image -- to advertise the picture.

That's very frightening, more frightening by far than anything the film can come up with. It suggests that we have a kind of Stepford right here in California. It's called Hollywood.

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