Flirty pretty things
In “The Stepford Wives,” a loud, crassly comic spin on the 1970s feminist freakout, women wear floral-print dresses and come as generously upholstered as Barbie -- they’re furnishings and sex toys both. Tucked into McMansions and SUVs the size of tankers, the women are either blond or blond in ambition, graced with flawless figures and given to extreme shopping. They live in Stepford -- a land forgotten by Vogue, vibrators and radical feminism, and home to some seriously screwy sexual politics.
As the film’s moral and narrative center, Joanna Eberhart, Nicole Kidman enters with a hard glint in her eye that may have something to do with director Frank Oz (the director and cast reportedly clashed during production) and strongly suggests a woman unaccustomed to hearing the word “no.” Wildly successful, Joanna runs a television network where she airs reality programs about the tenuously married (“I Can Do Better!”), affairs of the heart she’s happy to trample. After a disgruntled contestant wreaks revenge, Joanna loses her job, then her marbles. By the time she recovers, husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) has moved the family to Stepford and Joanna’s fashion-forward life has been replaced by throw pillows and kitchen appliances smarter than most of the town’s women.
Either a deadpan satire of feminism or a deadpan skewering, Ira Levin’s short novel divided critics from the start (as did the 1975 movie). A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review called the novel a “little ambush of Women’s Lib, life, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Where some saw an ambush, others saw pro-liberation outrage.) Written in broad strokes, the book takes Joanna’s point of view, but the tone is impersonal and her character so undeveloped and devoid of psychological insight, it might as well not be. There’s somewhat more depth of feeling to the first film adaptation, which stars Katharine Ross and features a wonderful performance from Paula Prentiss as Joanna’s best friend, Bobbie (played for comic relief in the remake by the equally invaluable Bette Midler).
One of the accidental pleasures of the original movie is that Ross, with her Bambi eyes and swingy Maidenform-free physique, looks like a sex robot right from the start. Kidman is a vastly more accomplished actor -- her facial expressions are more animated than most of the first film’s performances combined -- but she’s unpersuasive in the role of the patsy. She’s a brilliant and copious shedder of stagecraft tears, but no matter how red her eyes and runny her nose there’s a steely, unyielding intensity to Kidman’s tiny alert features, an almost animal apprehension. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick concocts a breakdown to justify why her Type A achiever moves to Stepford; what neither he nor Oz nor any uncredited other party explains is why this bright woman would stay.
Blame love, even if Walter doesn’t seem worth the fuss. Empathetically played by Broderick, Walter comes across as a nice-enough Type B who fell into his marriage and still can’t believe his great good luck. He’s outclassed by his wife and he knows it, and part of the comedy’s tepid suspense hinges on whether Walter holds his inadequacies against Joanna enough to swap her for some advanced engineering. Part of the film’s weird vibe is that Rudnick and Oz don’t bother to give us a sense of Joanna and Walter’s dynamic, of what went wrong and why anyone else should care. Indeed, a huge chunk of the movie seems to have gone missing: One minute they’re moving into the boonies, the next minute they’re ripping into each other, then tearily confessing their love.
The scales tip when Walter unleashes a laugh-coaxing diatribe about how only castrating types from New York wear nothing but black. Call me crazy (or call me a woman), but usually when a man accuses a woman of being castrating it isn’t because she’s about to go snip-snip a la Lorena Bobbitt. Played for chills or for laughs, “The Stepford Wives” is essentially about power (that old phallic substitute), about women who have it and men who don’t like that they do. It’s worth noting that Levin opens his book with a quotation from Simone de Beauvoir and folds in pointed references to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, whose speech at the Stepford Women’s Club provoked the town’s men to turn their helpmeets into playmates. Notably, in the years since, the “F-word” (feminism) has all but faded from the story.
These days the original “Stepford” movie plays like an unintentional camp classic because it’s both sublimely tacky and deeply serious. It’s flat-out absurd, risible at times, but in moments it’s also pretty creepy and weirdly affecting. At the end of the film, when Ross asks the chief architect of the Stepford conspiracy “Why” -- why all this fear and loathing toward women they purport to love, why this murderous desire for pasted-on smiles -- the silver-haired smoothie purrs three shivery words: “Because we can.” You don’t need to slog through “The Second Sex” to get his drift, which unlike the film’s midi-dresses and unremitting kitsch retains a chilling timelessness. That timelessness is what’s given “The Stepford Wives” its pop longevity: The idea of man-made women still zings because it isn’t archaic.
Given the new film’s gaping plot holes, it’s impossible to know if Rudnick really believes we’re living in a post-Stepford world as the film suggests. The movie (and not just the jokes) might be funny if we were -- though even with its token gay citizens, Stepford comes off as too queasily familiar to be truly funny. Rudnick and the film’s co-producer Scott Rudin seem like smart guys, so I doubt they buy the backlash idea that women have come such a long way it’s time they took the fall. Oz, whose resume includes charmers like “Bowfinger” and stinkers like “The Score,” seems principally preoccupied with selling the jokes too hard. Yet it was somebody’s nitwit idea to rip out the story’s guts and brains for a sour sellout of a finale -- which finds the filmmakers behaving exactly like Stepford men and turning an original into a dummy.
By then, Dorothy, we’re not in Stepford anymore, but we definitely are in Hollywood.
‘The Stepford Wives’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and language
Times guidelines: Risque jokes, adult language, mild violence.
Nicole Kidman...Joanna Eberhart
Matthew Broderick...Walter Kresby
Bette Midler...Bobbie Markowitz
Christopher Walken...Mike Wellington
Roger Bart...Roger Bannister
Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures present a Scott Rudin/De Line Pictures production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Frank Oz. Writer Paul Rudnick. Based on the book by Ira Levin. Producers Scott Rudin, Donald De Line, Edgar J. Scherick, Gabriel Grunfeld. Director of photography Rob Hahn. Production designer Jackson De Govia. Film editor Jay Rabinowitz. Costume designer Ann Roth. Music supervisor Randall Poster. Music David Arnold. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.