Shhhhh. The wives of Stepford have a secret.
Actually, they have two secrets.
The first is that they’re featured in a bland, empty-headed farce that values narrative complacency over invention. No sharp edges here. Only blunt, plastic frosting-spreaders.
Broderick and Kidman
The second secret is one you probably already know, particularly if you have any familiarity with Ira Levin’s early 1970s novel or the ’75 film version starring Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss. It’s such common knowledge that the Stepford secret no longer carries any surprise value whatsoever: the men of Stepford, Connecticut prefer their women to be subservient Betty Crocker cupcake machines, and to that end have found a way to turn them into mechanized “living” dolls.
To be honest, you have to wonder why in this day and age anyone thought The Stepford Wives was even worthy of a remake. The original at least made sense in the context of the women’s lib movement of the day. But we’ve moved far beyond the very things at which the original Stepford took satirical aim.
Close and Walken
In revisiting the project, director Frank Oz had two choices: keep it a thriller or go for the laughs. He opts for the latter. Hiring screenwriter Paul Rudnick ensured that the movie would be spiked with snappy one-line zingers, but Rudnick has no clue what to do with the storyline and his narrative unravels into a huge mess.
One of the biggest problems with the new Stepford Wives is that it rarely goes far enough over the top. The movie is only truly enjoyable when it’s unapologetically absurd — such as when one of the town’s husbands uses his robo-wife as an ATM. The movie could use more moments like this, but Oz and Rudnick, fearful of offending, play things safe. So safe, in fact, that the movie might as well be wearing a condom.
The film’s teensy-tiny saving graces come in the form of its bosomy and expensive all-star cast — notably Nicole Kidman as a deposed television network exec whose meek-as-a-mouse husband Walter (Matthew Broderick, in a utterly thankless role) buys into the Stepford mentality that women should be cleaning, cooking and providing marital pleasures upon the push of a remote control button. Kidman gives it her all, and you’ve gotta give her credit for not quitting the project midway through. Bette Midler is enjoyable as Bobbie Markowitz, a caustic, frumpy author straight out of New York’s Greenwich Village. And Glenn Close has some spirited campy fun as Claire Wellington, leader of Stepford’s fembots. But Christopher Walken sleepwalks through his role as the eccentric head of the Stepford Men’s Association, a place where scotch is swilled, cigars are smoked, and battlebots are pitted against one another.
The film’s only inspired addition — the one that actually gives it momentum — is the inclusion of a gay couple. Roger Bart steals the movie as a bitchy queen whose husband Jerry, a gay Republican, would prefer his man to stop swishing like a runway model on an estrogen binge.
The Stepford Wives isn’t a movie you need to rush out to see. It’s not a movie you really need to see at all. But if you must, why not wait six months or so when the DVD comes out? Then you can invite a few friends over and have a Big Ol’ Drag Stepford Party, complete with cocktails, party dresses, and spontaneous bitchy bon mots to help fill in the movie’s dead spots. Trust me, you’ll have plenty to bitch about.