The Stepford Wives

on June 11, 2004 by Christine James
The wives of Stepford do have a secret, as promised by the tagline. Despite trailers and even TV commercials that seem to unfold the entire plot, and a widely-seen original film that's so iconic its title is an archetype, there are a couple of welcome--if underachieving--twists in this remake about a metropolitan family that relocates to the suburbs, only to find their picture-perfect small town is "Twilight Zone"-adjacent.

This version is a comic take on the 1975 thriller that starred Katharine Ross as Joanna Eberhart, an independent, feminist-leaning woman who's appalled that her new neighbors are all June Cleaver wannabes in bombshell bodies. Here, Nicole Kidman plays Joanna as the president of a television network whose outrageous and often male-bashing reality programming ideas have rocketed her to the top of her field. She's knocked off her pedestal when a humiliated game show participant shows up at a major conference attended by all the network affiliates. That the mild-mannered milquetoast is played by "Chuck and Buck's" goofy but darkly edgy Mike White is the first sign that things are about to go awry. He suggests a brand new show called "Let's Kill All the Women," and demonstrates the premise by pulling out a gun and firing at Joanna.

This dramatic attempt on her life barely phases Joanna, who within mere minutes is back in her office capitalizing on the attack by planning a reunion special called "Let the Healing Begin." However, the network has other ideas, distancing themselves from the debacle by firing its central figure. This news, unlike her near-death experience, sends her screaming and twitching straight into electroshock therapy.

This A-plus-with-a-cum-laude-on-top-type personality reluctantly promises her husband (Matthew Broderick) to reevaluate her priorities, and agrees to a fresh start in the exclusive community of Stepford. She's taken aback by the bake sales and square dances, and is genuinely freaked out by the grinning, gorgeous, mindless women of the community, who dote excessively on their conspicuously nerdy husbands.

Is there anyone left out there who doesn't know that the Stepford Wives are robots programmed for subservience? If so, don't be mad; that's not really a spoiler--you'd have figured that out as soon as you saw that Faith Hill was willingly married to a portly, balding, chauvinistic boob named Herb.

Joanna doesn't catch onto this for some time, despite seeing sparks fly out of the ears of one malfunctioning mademoiselle. She just thinks everyone is weird. She finds soul mates in Stepford's only other outsiders: sloppy, mouthy author Bobbie (Bette Midler) and flamboyantly gay Roger (Roger Bart). The three find solace in poking fun at the locals and sneaking around trying to figure out what's going on ("I feel like Nancy Drew in 'The Mystery of the Midlife Crisis!'" exclaims Roger cheekily)--until Bobbie becomes the model housewife overnight and Roger suspiciously throws away all his Versace shirts and his framed picture of Orlando Bloom.

There are laughs along the way, but the central Stepford Wife concept is the main running joke, and it's too overly familiar to even be considered satire at this point. And the surprise ending is basically what one would hope for, except with far too mild a comeuppance. "Oh, you Stepford Husbands," it seems to say with a clucking of the tongue and a shake of the head.

There also seems to be a major inconsistency in--shall we say--operating systems. Now, this quibble does unavoidably involve a spoiler, so for those who want to preserve some sense of suspense, stop reading at the end of this sentence: And they all lived happily ever after--or not.

For the last-page-of-the-book-peekers or those who have seen the film: If the Stepford Wives were actually humans with implanted behavior-modifying chips, why would they be able to spark from the ears, have inflatable chests and be impervious to fire? And why was the bald cyber-Joanna constructed if it wasn't necessary for the personality transplant? It's as if director Frank Oz shot the whole movie using the original robot premise, only to think up a cooler ending on the last day of filming, not caring that it directly contradicts what came before. Worse, not nearly enough is done with the table-turning (though some might think that having a slew of women yammer at you is a punishment that fits the crime). It's programming errors like these that make Stepford 2.0 short-circuit. Starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close. Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Paul Rudnick. Produced by Scott Rudin, Donald De Line, Edgar J. Scherick and Gabriel Grunfeld. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and language. Running time: 93 min

Tags: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Frank Oz, Paul Rudnick, Scott Rudin, Donald De Line, Edgar J. Scherick, Gabriel Grunfeld, Paramount, body modifying, suspense, soul mates, humor, marriage

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