A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE STEPFORD WIVES jj

2004, PG-13, 93 mins.

Joanna Eberhart: Nicole Kidman / Walter Kresby: Matthew Broderick / Bobbie Markowitz: Bette Midler / Mike Wellington: Christopher Walken / Claire Wellington: Glenn Close / Sarah Sunderson: Faith Hill / Roger Bannister: Roger Bart / Dave Markowitz: Jon Lovitz

Directed by Frank Oz /  Written by Paul Rudnick and based on the book by Ira Levin

The Stepford Wives (2004) Double-sided posterI must make an honest and brave confession, dear readers.  I have never seen the original 1975 thriller THE STEPFORD WIVES.   This may be an advantageous position to be in, especially going into see Frank Oz’s remake of it.  I have been a large supporter of his work since his earliest days as a director and, for my money, he has never made a bad  film.  His comedies have always worked on a level of being consistently droll (WHAT ABOUT BOB, IN AND OUT, BOWFINGER, and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS are small comic gems) and his previous film, 2001’s THE SCORE, was one of the best crime capers of recent memory. 

So, I went into his retelling of Ira Levin’s 1972 book with a great amount of enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, after leaving the film, I felt more like either (a) going to the book for inspiration or (b) watching the 1975 version.  THE STEPFORD WIVES remake, under the often gifted and confident hands of Oz, is a misguided mess,  one that tries to be too much a calculated comedy and less a nail biting feminist satire and psychological thriller.  It really has no idea or pretensions of what it wants to be.

I think THE STEPFORD WIVES probably worked better in the mid-70’s than it does now.  If you look back in time and try to put the remake and its content in perspective, Levin’s book (and I am assuming its 1975 film adaptation) probably felt more like a radical indictment and satire of every man’s deep, inner desire for a sexy, mindless drone wife that would do anything he  asked her to do.  Okay, every man fantasizes about that, and any that say they don’t are lying.  But then again, as Nicole Kidman’s character in the 2004 film says, can an idealized woman of a man’s dreams tell him that she loves him and mean it?  

I am again assuming,  since the book came out in a time of social conflict in America with the rising tide of the feminist movement, that Levin was making some pointed observations about our social structure and how woman weave into it.  The main problem with Oz and his film is that he really never seriously explores these social issues nor dives into an arena of social satire that could have made the film stand out.  Rather, he makes, more or less, a fairly pedestrian comedy with some laughs (not many), thinly developed characters, and a largely inconsistent tone.  It tries to be slapstick, farcical, and part thriller all at once.  It’s more or less a broad comedy, but when Oz tries to go serious with some of the film’s revelations, it seems out of context.  The film is all over the place. 

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Joanna Eberhart, an extremely powerful and confident TV executive.  At the beginning of the film she attends a gala and unveils her network's newest shows, which largely are of those shady and sleazy reality shows that too many people view these days love.  The clips of the shows she introduces provide for some of the film’s biggest (and only)  laughs.  One seems like a curious satire of TEMPTATION ISLAND where a married couple are separated on an island and paired with “professional and high paid prostitutes”.  The clips are a riot, and one of the men eventually loses his wife to her male prostitute.  Well, that same man shows up at the convention and tries to kill Joanna for ruining his life.  A day later, with the network seeing themselves embroiled in years of costly lawsuits, fires Joanna.  She goes quickly insane (literally, more like an emotional breakdown).

Nicole’s husband, Walter (played by the always resourceful Matthew Broderick) decides to resign from the same network that Nicole works for.  Actually, he worked under her, so it would seem redundant for him to continue there.  Seeing that his wife is slowly going mad and he’s desperately trying to save their damaged marriage and family, Walter decides that a BIG change is necessary.  So, in a stroke of inspiration, he decides to move the whole family to Stepford, Connecticut (that state is the punchline for one of the film's other big laughs, but shall not be spoiled by me in an effort to preserve the secret of the film).   

Stepford may just be one of the oddest and strangely perverse towns ever.  Not that it’s a cesspool of evil, but something is just not right.  It’s just, well, weird.  All of the women that reside there seem like oversexed and obedient clones to their nerdy and unassuming husbands, catering to their every need and smiling every minute in the process.  Think of the neurotically conservative and subservient women that occupied PLEASANTVILLE except ten times less liberated  and you'll get the idea.  Walter, for obvious reasons, does not see anything to complain about (could you blame ‘em?).  The couple are then introduced to the town’s real estate agent, community greeter, and overall motivational speaker named Claire (Glenn Close).  To say that there is something odd about her is a gross understatement.  She really creeps out Joanna, who does not seem to really warm up to her or the town either.  Stepford seems like some sort of male fantasized utopia.  No one has jobs, everyone drives cool cars, and all of the women are obsessively hot, in a neo-1950’s homemaker kind of way.  Ya know, wholesomely sexy and desirable.  Actually, everyone appears so affluent that there is never that much to do then to gather with your fellow respective male and female friends.   

Walter is just nuts about Stepford and can’t see why the hell Joanna can’t appreciate it too.  Our sympathies do go out to Joanna on occasion, however, as we too share her suspicions of the true nature of the town.  No more is this apparent that when Claire takes her to meet the other Stepford wives for an afternoon of exercise.  However, when Joanna sees that the women all wear high heels and dresses to do aerobics that are tailored to household choirs, the feminist that is Joanna feels that something strange is afoot.  Meanwhile, Matthew could not be happier, as he hangs out at the local Men’s Association and bonds with his fellow Stepford husbands.  They do what most men secretly do when they congregate – play video games, smoke cigars, and drink brandy, although not in that order (we can’t let all our secrets out). 

As Matthew continues to enjoy his experience at Stepford, Joanna begins to spiral down into pits of despair and absolute confusion about the odd town.  She does eventually find someone to bond with, Bobbie (in a funny performance by Bette Middler) who authors such books like the one about her mother called I LOVE YOU, PLEASE DIE.  She too shares Joanna’s apprehension about the town, and she seems like the antithesis to the other Stepford wives.  Bobbie’s house is an absolute disaster area, whereas all of the other homes are so spotless that a mere bit of dust on a table would be considered “a mess” to a Stepford wife.  They try to do a little detective work to unravel some truths to the town.  All they seem to discover is the amazing stamina and enthusiasm of one Stepford wife while she makes love to her husband, but they conveniently miss her very, very peculiar  behaviour afterwards.   

While Joanna continues her conspiratorial hunt for the truth, Walter is introduced to the godfather figure of Stratford – Mike (played by the that dependable supporting player of all-trades, Christopher Walken).  He is married to Claire, but he sure seems to run the whole town.  Mike builds up Walter’s confidence and sense of satisfaction with the town and its perfect wives.  Walken does what he does best with this role; speak in that infamous Walken-esque manner that seems especially great when done in monologue form.  He has a sequence that involves him staring in a promotional film for the secret behind the Stepford wives in an effort to go “global”.  Needless to say, both Walter and Joanna do, in fact, discover the secret behind Stepford and let’s just say that the women are not in any way normal like they should be.   This then leads the two to a conclusion that seems about as out of place and false as any I've seen this year.  The ending could have been brave, but Oz and company played it far too safe.

Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have worked together before on the hilarious IN AND OUT, about a drama professor who is trying to deal with accusations of being a homosexual.  That film was played simply on a level of a broad comedy with big laughs at the expense of its characters.  Rudnick also had a real snappy way of delivering dialogue in that film that was brash, inane, and funny at the same time.  He managed to poke fun at both heterosexuals and homosexuals while not condemning them at the same time (in one funny moment of the film, an instructional audiotape on how to be a rugged man tells Kevin Kline, “Real men do NOT dance.  Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't dance, he can hardly walk!”)  

However uproariously amusing IN AND OUT was, THE STEPFORD WIVES is nowhere near its comic match.  Sure, Rudnick has a few really droll one-liners in the film (one in particular compares AOL to a woman’s slow sexual drive), but he misses the mark more than once.  Several moments are set up for big laughs that never pay off in any meaningful way.  Yes, the spoof of reality shows that were previously mentioned are hilarious, but his screenplay never achieves anywhere near this later on.  Even more grating is some of his characters, which are developed so broadly and shameless for cheap laughs that they are hardly even real characters.  Glenn Close overplays her part to the point of nausea, and Nicole Kidman seems stiff and mannered in her performance (she seems to try too hard for laughs, as if she knew that the words on the page would not do that for her).  The biggest offence is the gay character played by Roger Bart as a man of one-dimension and obnoxious homosexual stereotypes.  Did Rudnick forget his previous work where the comedy worked with gays and not at the expense of their personalities?  The gay character seems like a pathetic excuse for easy laughs.  I did not fall for it. 

The largest problem just may be in the lackluster direction by Oz, who is usually very adept at styling a forceful and contained piece.  Here he does not know really what he wants to do.  The mood and tone tiptoes and meanders from farce to slapstick to, in some small moments, a thriller.  If anything, his biggest failure was to infuse some real human and social satire into the piece.  Some scenes feel especially labored and pointless, especially in one moment where Walter and Joanna discuss their marriage in far too much detail.  You never really get an idea that Oz feels confident with the material, as he seems to fail to find an effective balance with all of the various implied tones of the film.  This is made all the more dubious when, as I discovered, the film went seriously over budget and was re-shot dozens of times after test screenings slammed it.  THE STEPFORD WIVES, as a result, seems like a disengaged and confusing film that really garners no investment from its audience.  I simply stopped caring after an hour, and its all-too-quick resolution in the third act had me groaning more that cheering. 

Frank Oz is a very gifted director, but is STEPFORD WIVES is a missed opportunity more than it is a mediocre and bad film.  Some scenes do work and there is the odd chuckle, but the film fails to provide big laughs when and where necessary (especially considering the talent involved, Walken and Broderick should have left me in stitches, but instead had me checking my watch).  The film’s comedy wears thin fast, its tone becomes too much of a jumbled stew of clichés and stereotypes, and ultimately just left me feeling kind of empty.  On a superficial level, the idea behind the film is intriguing (what man wouldn’t want a Stepford Wife?  Think of the real life implications?), but the film needed more exploration into the premise, and less bad jokes and subplots that go nowhere.  THE STEPFORD WIVES is a lot like the women in the town – lifeless, intellectually vacant, without any real emotional investment, and superficially great to look at, but lacking in a strong personal voice.   It isn't that its not a polished production, its just a sloppy and absorbingly over-priced $90 million dollar one that has no identity.  

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