The Stepford Wives
“The Stepford Wives” was one of those cautionary tales from the 1970’s about encroaching feminism – how can men keep their wives the models of 1950’s conformity in the face of social change? In the imaginary Connecticut town of Stepford, they do so with a diabolical plan that turns the women into robotic June Cleavers, automated slaves to their husbands. In the film this nasty business is exposed by Katherine Ross as a feisty, relocated New Yorker who attempts to escape the fate of her friends and neighbors; and the movie pulled you in despite your better judgment. Based on Ira Levin’s compelling page turner, it was like a good summer read at the beach.
The question raised by the remake, which is in theaters today, is how do you refashion it for the post-modern world? For director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick, it is to turn it into a one long campy joke. Lovers of the original movie will no doubt wince at the slightness of this candy-colored comedy, which, in the end, attempts to do Levin’s original plot one better; but if they’re willing to go along with its exaggerations and silliness they’ll find a light at the end of the tunnel in Glen Close, who chews the scenery with such aplomb as to make the foolishness seem strangely worthwhile.
The original film stayed pretty close to reality; Oz’s film pumps it up considerably, setting the movie not in a typical suburban town, but a gated community of million dollars home right out of a reality television series. Reality television, it turns out, plays a part in the film: Nicole Kidman, in the Ross role, plays Joanna Eberhart, a hugely successful television executive whose career collapses because of Jenny Jones-like incident involving a reality show she produced. After a nervous breakdown, her husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick,) takes her and their children to Stepford where they move into a palatial home replete with a robot-like dog right out of “Artificial Intelligence.”
Joanna begins to question the seeming unreality of the community that is something of a Prozaked retirement community for middle-aged Yuppies. The men appear to do nothing but hang out at the Gothic headquarters of the Mens’ Association; while the women speak in monosyllabic sentences as they drive about the town in their SUVs attending book group meetings where the featured selection is a book on Christmas keepsakes and collectables. (“This book tells us how to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ with yarn.”) In this re-imagining, Stepford is an icon for Bush Country; indeed it seems to be sustained on the revenue from the tax cuts of the past few years.
Joanna’s quickly joined by a pair of Stepford residents who, like herself, have yet to be indoctrinated into the town’s conformist ways: Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler,) a slovenly Jewish writer of such titles as “I Love You, But Please Die” and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart,) an openly gay man whose presence in the movie is to personify a Queer Eye attitude. The trio attempt to crack the mystery of the town’s numbing conformity; but before they can, both Bobbi and Roger are transformed: she into a perky housewife and he into a stone-faced politician bent on becoming a state senator. (Queer Factor: While the filmmakers makes no attempt at showing any ethnic diversity to Stepford, they do include a welcoming nod to gay couples, who, it appears as long as their straight-acting, are welcome in the town.)
When Joanna attempts to leave town, she’s brought before the Men’s Association where the truth about the wives is revealed. Oddly there’s little sense of tension to the unraveling of the mystery; and the compelling final image of the original film, where Joanna, now transformed, is seen shopping in a super market, lacks much resonance here. That, though, isn’t the end: Oz and Rudnick tack on an ending that brings the story full circle and exposes the real villain with an over-the-top flourish. By then, though, any hope that the film would be a good thriller or satire is largely dashed.
You can see how Rudnick is pushing his concept as a deft criticism of the conformity and classism of the Bush years. (Imagine Laura Bush and Jessica Simpson walking amongst the Stepford wives, and Lynne Cheney in the Glen Close role.) Yet he doesn’t delve beneath the surface, and instead relies upon his often funny quips and stereotypes to be used as an excuse for social commentary. In reworking the movie as a breezy summer comedy (it clocks in at just 90 minutes, and can be nicely sandwiched between a meal at the mall and a visit to Banana Republic,) it never dares to offend anyone. Instead it merrily rolls along, as if retelling its familiar story on anti-depressants, complete with ridiculous special effects and broad performances from its starry cast.
As Joanna Nicole Kidman barely seems to register. She’s lovely, intelligent, and does what is asked of her; but most anyone could have done it: it’s a Stepford performance. Midler is all Midler, for better or, in this case, worse. Her hamminess makes you realize why her film acting career has stalled so in the past few years. Matthew Broderick looks uncomfortable as Joanna’s nebbishy husband; Christopher Walken walks through his role as the evil head of the Men’s Association; but Roger Bart breathes life into his woefully stereotypical gay character. Perhaps the only reason to see this film is to see Glen Close give one of her perfectly-wrought performances. As Claire Wellington, Stepford’s leading hostess, she’s so focused as to make this oddly familiar character – the middle aged Prom Queen – seem scarily real. In her operatic finale, she appears to be channeling Alex Forrest, and it gives the movie a dramatic high note that is strangely missing from what came before it. “The Stepford Wives” is one of those missed opportunities: in this moment how refreshing would it be for Hollywood to have come up with a sharp commentary on class, consumerism, and conformity? What we get is inoffensive summer nonsense that all but evaporates before your very eyes.