Uptight workaholic and tv network powerhouse Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) “barely knows” her two kids and has left her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) feeling impotent. That’s not to say she’s a ball-buster exactly, but she does have her priorities skewed. She has a styling, sharp-edged haircut and the niftiest of black suits, but she has no life that she can identify.
Her paucity of spirit is odiously illustrated during the first five minutes of The Stepford Wives, when, before an audience of like-coiffed tv execs, she offers up her latest reality program, I Can Do Better. The pilot has wussy Omaha husband Hank (Mike White) learning his wife prefers a bevy of XXX-actors to him. (She can do better.) He shows up at the presentation with a gun that he’s recently used on his wife. (Just how he gets in the door with it is unclear — shoddy security at this corporate HQ.) Joanna is duly punished for setting up the network for lawsuits out the wazoo: she’s fired (“We have shareholders,” moans her boss, suddenly a moral ground, or at least a monetary one).
Worse, Walter moves Joanna and their nondescript kids to Stepford, Connecticut, where the community is gated, the driveways are long, and the vast lawns are manicured. Understandably groggy following her electro-shock therapy (apparently, this explains how Walter entices her to these upscale boonies in the first place), Joanna doesn’t quite notice how scary the place really is. Even after being greeted at their gargantuan front door by demonic-seeming flower-basket-pocketbook-holding local snoot Claire (Glenn Close), Joanna goes along the next morning to “workout” class, where she leans wanly against the wall as the Stepford wifeys wear pastel sundresses, wave their arms to approximate exercise, and smile way too brightly.
Though it’s instantly clear that the wives aren’t precisely thinking for themselves, Joanna is shocked, shocked (!) to see one of them sputter out of control at the hoedown, where Claire and her foofy crew slap their knees and whoop with glee when the square-dancing starts. The fun comes crashing to a brief halt when one of the gals, Sarah (Faith Hill, with little to do here except look strained and thin), sputters into a robotic meltdown, spinning in circles and yelping, “Do-si-do! Do-si-do!” and spewing literal sparks. This little performance does get Joanna’s attention, but when Walter calls her out one night for being a bad (self-absorbed, career-minded, and castrating) partner, she wakes up the next morning raring to wear pink and bake a kitchen full of cupcakes.
Because she is so utterly and annoyingly guilt-trippable, Joanna hardly seems in need of Stepfordization by the Men’s Association. And yet, there they are, snarkling over the upcoming procedure, indoctrinating Walter, hanging out at what is reportedly the same mansion used in the first and far superior version of this movie. Headed by Mr. Claire, that is, Mike (Christopher Walken), the Association is comprised of “drooling nerds” who smoke cigars, drink booze, and play with remote-controlled cars. Aside from being called “King” while having sex with bosomy wives in lavender negligees, such tedious activities appear to be the extent of their life ambitions. Welcome to the 21st century, guys. And oh yes, grow up.
In other words, Ira Levin’s campy concept, already dated in 1975, now looks positively Neanderthal. And ostensible efforts at updating only muck up the works more profoundly. As if dealing with Walter’s tedious retardation is not enough, Joanna must also confront the stereotypical spectacle of her as-yet-unturned neighbors, ornery-Jewish-feminist-author Bobbi (Bette Midler), married to slovenly Dave (Jon Lovitz) and fabulous, highlighty-haired gay man Roger (Roger Bart), married to stodgy gay Republican Jerry (David Marshall Grant). The logic here is baffling — Dave or Jerry don’t begin to fit in with the rest of the twitty husbands.
Though an overtly gay Stepford Wives is certainly conceivable (as the original film is all about dragging feminine stereotypes), Frank Oz’s evidently rewritten and recut incarnation (script attributed to Paul Rudnick) doesn’t have the necessary teeth. That’s not to say that Joanna’s catty quotient isn’t much improved when she’s around Bobbi and Roger, but alas, she’s prone to losing track of her skeptical and self-knowing trajectory. Slipping in and out of resistance and submission modes, Joanna becomes increasingly incoherent, as does the film (which looks hacked together with a chainsaw, especially when the final coda comes up, undoing Katherine Ross’ nasty legacy with a seeming happy ending that might best be described as witless).
The remade Roger wears a suit and stands at a flag-draped podium, where he announces, “I believe in Stepford, America, and the power of prayer.” Bobbi 2 is blond and wasp-waisted, determined to ensure her chubby sons have every food item their hearts desire. Perhaps most unbelievable of all, Joanna’s internet research leads her directly to a correct conclusion.
Or… wait. The movie can’t even come to its own conclusion about what the procedure involves. For a minute, it appears that, as before, it’s the result of a wife’s murder and replacement with a robot. But maybe it’s drugs. Or maybe it’s brainwashing. Or maybe it’s microchips implanted in the brain. But this logic (absurd as it is) is undermined at film’s end with a “twist” that looks awfully like blaming the victim. This muddle seems a likely result of the rumored disagreements on the set and last-minute reshoots. The parody is stale, the jokes unfunny, and Glenn Close tries too darn hard.