The Stepford Wives
Dir.: Frank Oz
PG-13, 93 min.
Now showing at area theaters
As far as I'm concerned, there was only one reason ever to watch Martha Stewart Living: the suspense of which day the host would finally blow a fuse, spew sparks across the set and collapse in spastic thrashing amid the crepe-paper magnolias. Everything about the show, from the antiseptic "warmth" of the interiors to Stewart's eerily composed presencethink Yul Brynner in Westworld armed with candy thermometerssuggested some horrific Disneyland Hall of Homemakers experiment in animatronic hearthkeeping. An adjective was even invented for such airless, unnatural perfection: "Stepford."
The 1974 movie The Stepford Wives, like Ira Levin's source novel, is a gender-specific update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A master at preying on female paranoiahe also wrote the gyno-horror benchmark, Rosemary's BabyLevin replaced the Red Menace embodied by the pod people with wittily confirmed feminist fears: What if all society offers is to become a happy housewife who does nothing but dispense cupcakes and orgasms, and what if filling that role means turning into a robotic slave? The men of Levin's swanky, secretive Stepford suburb do what lots of insecure guys do when they hit middle age: trade in for new models. The ones in Stepford look just like the old models, only they're bustier and come with remote controls.
Something similar has happened with the new version of The Stepford Wives, a kind of trophy-wife remake that swaps horror for glossy farce with diminished results. It's not that the original is any masterpiece; it's painfully slow and unevenly acted, and today its big scares play mostly as camp. (My wife has been known to stagger around the kitchen chanting, "I'll just die if I don't get that recipe!") But the new version goes straight for camp and winds up at irrelevance. Gone is the original's gauzy '70s TV-movie look, which dated it faster than mood rings. Yet what's in its place seems even more retro: facetious frilliness out of a '50s Ross Hunter tearjerker, spritzed with "topical" gags about reality TV and Microsoft. The original's satire has been defanged, down to the toothless nips at far-right family-values palaver.
In place of the original's believably ordinary (if stiff) Katharine Ross, the remake puts Nicole Kidman back in her Virginia Woolf Halloween costume as a cold, callous network execher severely cut brunette hair is almost the whole character. When her new reality shows flame out publicly (and improbably), she moves to Stepford with her second-banana spouse (Matthew Broderick) and their children, who are as useless as an appendix to the plot. After a close encounter with Stepford's ickily cheerful matron (Glenn Close) and the town's over-aerobicized womenfolk, she settles into the blessedly imperfect company of a slovenly author (Bette Midler) and a here-and-queer columnist (Roger Bart)until they too succumb to Stepford's attitude adjustment.
Playing up the original's pitch-black humor makes sense: Its sharpest moments had a queasy-funny satirical kick. But the remake turns the characters into such cartoons that there's no longer any humanity at stake. In the original, Paula Prentiss made the heroine's best friend realistically flaky and amusing, and her dehumanization stung. Midler gives the role her all, popping her vicious lines like gum, but she's a caricature before and after her transformation. Kidman, stuck in a miserable straight-man role, doesn't even get that much to work with. The role's written so snarkily that she's a veritable android before she even gets to Stepford.
Blame falls to screenwriter Paul Rudnick, who provides only joke dispensers and sketch-comedy stereotypes where characters are needed. If anybody could have brought out the macabre wit in the idea, it should have been Rudnick, whose underrated Addams Family Values attacks conformist zealotry with gleeful malice. And there are glimpses of a darker-humored movie that may have been scrapped during Stepford's widely reported production troubles. (One cutting detail suggests a scarier movie that might have been: The top-secret Stepford men's club entertains itself with BattleBots fights.) But Rudnick settles for lazy potshots at gay Republicans and computer nerds when the situation calls for bite. The movie peters out in glib one-liners even before its ill-conceived happy ending, which essentially negates the entire premise.
Between Rudnick's catty japes about gays and Jews in Connecticut and Jackson DeGovia's sinister-suburbia production design, director Frank Oz is left flailing to find a coherent tone. Which leaves a viewer asking, as is true of so many remakes: Why did anyone bother? Watching the 1974 Stepford Wives today, it seems not only specific to its time but germane: Its fears of male domination and loss of female identity deliver shivers that come only from conviction. Isn't there anything today the filmmakers are afraid to lose? Like its made-to-order sex bombs, the new Stepford Wives is a product of the assembly line, missing only the parts that would make it work.
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