The Stepford Wives

(Frank Oz, USA, 2004)


The television ad campaign for this new version of The Stepford Wives, briefly controversial in America, is better than the film itself.

In the vein of the splendid Down with Love (2003), this ad showed Nicole Kidman at the head of a line of ‘perfect housewives’ gliding through a pastel-coloured heaven.

But there is no shot exactly matching this one in the movie, and this is where its troubles start. Director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick – officially fronting what was reportedly a troubled and much-revised production – take the easy, reassuring option at every point instead of mining the true subversive potential of the material.

Joanna (Kidman) is an alienated, hyper-stressed TV executive who has made her fame from reality-shows that push the envelope of the contemporary gender war. When an aggrieved male contestant (Mike White from The Good Girl [2002] and The School of Rock [2003]) threatens her life with a gun, Joanna’s career, in the aftermath, plunges into catastrophe.

So it is time for Joanna to alter her lifestyle and move, with husband Walter (Matthew Broderick), to Stepford, Connecticut.

This town seems idyllic – too much so. All the wives seem to conform to a very old-fashioned code of submissive femininity – updated to include ostentatious orgasms in the marital bedroom. Their husbands seem blissfully happy – again, too much so.

Of course, many viewers will already know the much-vaunted secret of Stepford, so this version has to labour mightily to provide a few extra twists and surprises. Sadly, this is a super-budget A movie that, in its determination to be clever, ends up far less logical than the most demented B movie. (I do not believe plot plausibility to be the most important thing in a film, but here – where the wives seem to transform, nonsensically, from malfunctioning robots to salvageable flesh-and-blood dames with computer chips in their heads, the discrepancy is too great!)

The only reason anyone would want to remake The Stepford Wives (originally an Ira Levin novel) today is in order to needle a raw nerve in the modern world concerning the respective status of men and women. Oz and his collaborators have, after all, rich post-'75 developments with which to play: the Iron John Men’s Movement, the rise of women as successful players in the corporate world, and so on.

Yet there is nothing even remotely disquieting about the film’s take on these issues. Not only is Joanna offered as our unimpeachable identification figure; she also has two enlightened, smart-talking pals, novelist Bobbie (Bette Midler) and gay architect Roger (Roger Bart), to echo her growing suspicions. And as for the men, despite the presence of Mike (Christopher Walken) as their suave ringleader, they never amount to anything more frightening than a bunch of paper tigers.

The original film of The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) derived its novelty-value from the fact that it was a science fiction story cloaked in a bland, small-town naturalism. This new version makes a complete hash of the lightly futuristic plot, while garishly overloading the Stepford milieu with fabulously affluent kitsch.

An early highlight of this sort is when Joanna first encounters her spookily high-techno, almost self-running household. Keen films buffs may recall with pleasure at this point that Fred Walton, the specialist in such low-key domestic horror, directed the underrated The Stepford Husbands (1996) for television. But here this promising trail is, like so many others, simply left hanging.

There is a gruesome fascination about this train-wreck of a movie, and some enjoyably over-the-top moments of satire (especially the mock clips from reality TV). But, in the end, it registers as a wasted opportunity.

MORE Oz: Bowfinger, The Indian in the Cupboard, In & Out, The Score

© Adrian Martin July 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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