The Stepford Wives (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Director Frank Oz asserts, 'There is no such a thing as Stepford. Stepford is in the mind.'"

The Stepford Wives

Director: Frank Oz
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Jon Lovitz, Roger Bart, Faith Hill
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-11-09

"A Perfect World: The Making of " opens with a set of interviewees telling how hard they worked to imagine Stepford. Director Frank Oz asserts, "There is no such a thing as Stepford. Stepford is in the mind." Likewise, cinematographer Rob Hahn says, "We had to recreate Stepford from nothing, there is no town." And still again, writer Paul Rudnick concurs, "What we were after was a sense of the modern suburbs, of the McMansion suburb." All too big, too wealthy, too fancy. And then comes Glenn Close, observing, "I grew up in this town where we're shooting, Greenwich Connecticut, so it's very surreal for me."

Unsurprisingly, Paramount's DVD of The Stepford Wives takes some glee in the artifice and surreality of this particular state of mind, as indicated by its extras (best-deleted scenes and a "gag reel"), as well as redundant featurettes. These include "Stepford: A Definition" ["the Stepford wife has no personality of her own," says Nicole Kidman; or again, Rudnick says, "she has a Barbie doll, dazed quality"]), "Stepford: The Architects" (happy interviews with the crew), "The Stepford Wives" (Oz: "In order to create a Stepford wife, you have to have fear"), and "The Stepford Husbands" (Close: "You can't say that the Stepford husbands have been cast for their beauty")

Stepford, the mindset everyone is so giddy to remake, is a matter of performance, namely, the performance of confidence and privilege, whether by lady robots or the silly men who want them. But while the film would appear to champion the independent-thinking woman in opposition to such literally mechanical conformity, it also makes visible fears of women who work too much. Just so, the first image of "Nic," as Frank Oz fondly observes in his commentary track (during which he calls lots of actors "marvelous"), is a function of saunter: "Her body language really told how confident and cocky she was." She plays uptight workaholic and tv network powerhouse Joanna Eberhart, who "barely knows" her two kids and has left her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) feeling impotent (and not a little whiny, meaning that, according to the film, both partners need to revamp their roles, and become more conventionally gender-appropriate).

That's not to say Joanna's a ball-buster exactly (though this is Walter's experience of her), 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 multiple lawsuits: she's fired. "We have shareholders," moans her boss, suddenly a moral ground, or at least a monetary one. Here, Oz says, "I just love the idea of seeing Nicole, or rather the character Nicole plays, Joanna, totally deconstruct." (A slip that might be termed "interesting.")

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, flail their arms to approximate exercise, and smile too brightly. "We wanted to make sure," says Oz, "that [the costumes] were very anachronistic of the time, they were soft and lovely and sexy and very, very inappropriate for the exercises they're about to do."

Though it's instantly clear that the wives aren't precisely thinking for themselves, Joanna is 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 (Oz says he's sure his cast hates him now, because he made them square-dance for days: "No one wants to hear this music ever again"). The fun comes crashing to a brief halt when one of the gals, Sarah (Faith Hill, whom Oz congratulates for coming in to audition by herself), 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, snarking 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) is married to slovenly Dave (Jon Lovitz), whom Oz describes as a "great couple." As well, Joanna bonds with fabulous, highlighty-haired Roger (Roger Bart), here married to stodgy gay Republican Jerry (David Marshall Grant). The logic here is baffling -- Jerry doesn't begin to fit in with the rest of the twitty husbands (whom Oz describes as "arrested development"), though the "Republican" label apparently makes Jerry fair game.

Though an overtly gay Stepford Wives is certainly conceivable (as the original film is all about dragging feminine stereotypes), Oz and Rudnick's evidently rewritten and recut incarnation doesn't have the requisite teeth. That's not to say that Joanna's catty quotient isn't much improved when she's around Bobbi and Roger, but she's prone to losing track of her skeptical, 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. Most unbelievably of any of these plot tics, Joanna's internet research leads her directly to a correct conclusion, and then to conspiracy with Walter, who's not so evil as the other husbands after all.

But if Joanna and Walter can find a conclusion, the movie can't, at least when it comes to what the robotization 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 hard.

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