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This chaotic version of The Stepford Wives (from Ira Levin's 1972 thriller) is wacky in a retro party-animal way. It's as if Frank Oz directed with a lampshade on his head. That would account for storytelling that stumbles halfway in, and for gags so old you've read them on cocktail napkins.

Because some of these jokes are revived by Bette Midler as, basically, bawdy, truth-telling Bette Midler, the token Jewish gal in town, Roger Bart as the wisecracking gay in town and Nicole Kidman as the frantic new wife in town, the film has moments of Hellzapoppin' energy. (When Kidman's on the brink of catastrophe, she produces an odd, tremulous giddiness.) But the final effect is so diluted it's more like Heckzapoppin'.

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In the 1975 horror movie of The Stepford Wives, men viewed "women's libbers" as castrating banshees and transformed them into perfect-housewife/bedmate robots. At the start of Oz's burlesque edition, today's super-women really are castrating banshees. The heroine, Joanna (Kidman), is a driven TV programmer whose game shows and "reality shows" favor females in the battle of the sexes.

After one episode catalyzes a mass shooting, her bosses fire her, and she has a nervous collapse (because of the firing, not the shooting). So her husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), takes her and their children from Manhattan to Stepford, Conn., where the men look average and the women have had ultra-extreme makeovers.

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If its makers had sustained equal-opportunity satire of maniacal career-ladies and the "drooling nerds" of husbands who remake them, The Stepford Wives might have been a delightfully vicious pop satire. But Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick don't follow through on anything. We get a hodgepodge menu for disaster: goofball parodies of upper-class suburban bliss and urban discontent, tender relationship moments between Walter and Joanna, and facetious special effects that wallop the female form.

It's tough to remake a story that relies on a secret like the Stepford wives are robots. But Oz and Rudnick don't even try to build suspense, comical or otherwise, about Stepford's mysterious Men's Association and its robotizing process. These filmmakers approach their jobs as if they're lampooning a property everyone knows for a topical late-night TV show. That's a big mistake. For one thing, even though the phrase "the Stepford wives" has entered the culture, the original movie and novel never did, because they lacked the zest and inspiration of Levin's earlier Rosemary's Baby.

For another, TV has already stolen this film's satiric thunder. Is Joanna's reality show, I Can Do Better, in which married couples vacation with prostitutes, so much worse than Temptation Island? The movie is unimaginative and out of touch, down to the Martha Stewart look of Stepford's McMansions.

The leading critic of her time, Pauline Kael, condemned the original movie for selling a "gutted view of women's liberation" that played into women's victim fantasies and male guilt. To Kael, the danger of robotization was "giving in to commercialism and letting the advertising society set the model for one's own behavior." But the older movie and the book are at least coherent, and worth a wrestle.

Maybe Kael's critique gave Rudnick the idea that the real theme of The Stepford Wives is the link between consumerism and perfectionism. But no matter how hard the filmmakers hammer it home, right from the vintage commercials in the opening credits, that theme doesn't illuminate the biological farce at the core of the story.

Great casting ideas, like Glenn Close and Christopher Walken as "the King and Queen of Stepford," don't pay off, because the filmmakers' increasingly desperate twists alter the basis of the characters. Even the innovation of a gay couple simply leads to mixed-and-matched cliches. To toss about some cliches of my own: by the end, watching The Stepford Wives is as much fun as scraping the bottom of a barrel of monkeys.

The Stepford Wives

Starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Roger Bart

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Directed by Frank Oz

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Time 93 minutes

Sun Score **


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