The Stepford Wives

Review by Adam Blair

Starring Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart, Christopher Walken, David Marshall Grant, Jon Lovitz and Glenn Close

Screenplay by Paul Rudnick, based on the novel by Ira Levin

Directed by Frank Oz

Rated PG-13; 93 minutes

There’s an interesting thing that can happen when a film acquires “bad buzz” — the swarm of gossip-column hints, can-this-movie-be-saved? articles and the elaborate dance of talk-show appearances and non-appearances that all contribute to both the average and the avid filmgoer’s perception of an upcoming release. The remake of The Stepford Wives acquired, or manufactured, its share of BB (tales of on-set tensions, “disastrous” previews and close-to-opening reshoots) and, when it opened, some fairly dismissive reviews. But sometimes the bad buzz bees can create honey while they sting.

In the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” category, some people will go see the movie to see if it’s as bad as “they” say. But BB can also lower expectations, creating the delightful and increasingly rare phenomenon of a movie being better than you expected. This Stepford succeeds in the latter category, and I’m not just damning it with faint praise. It’s a fun, up-to-date take on an inherently silly premise, albeit one that has entered the cultural lexicon (along with its close cousin, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

More than that, The Stepford Wives is an actually funny mainstream comedy, made by people who realize how very hard they have to work to make something that appears light, frothy and effortless. Stepford’s screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz happily take on Martha Stewart’s work ethic (not her ethics), while spoofing her ideals of housewifely perfection and materialistic mania.

Some of the reviews have taken this Stepford to task for its jokey, farcical tone, but I don’t think there’s anything else the filmmakers could do with this material, given that it’s an intentional comedy (as opposed to the unintentionally amusing 1975 version starring Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss). I haven’t read the Ira Levin novel that started the whole thing, but judging from the book of Rosemary’s Baby, his main contribution was probably the fairly cool core idea — insecure husbands frightened by the first faint stirrings of feminism plot to roboticize their wives into pneumatically chipper maids/cooks/sex kittens. Levin is not a great prose stylist or a deep writer; the film of Rosemary’s Baby has both deeper characters and a more convincing horror atmosphere than the book, thanks mostly to Roman Polanski’s direction and Mia Farrow’s intensely felt performance.

(Levin does seem to like disposing of and/or using women. The aforementioned Rosemary is pimped out to Satan by her ambitious, sleazy husband; the Stepford wives all meet gruesome ends; and in Levin’s long-running stage play Deathtrap, the wife is literally frightened to death. Is there currently a Mrs. Ira Levin, and if so, has anyone spoken to her recently?)

This Stepford isn’t, in my estimation, any type of serious feminist tract — not that it or its predecessors should have been. It uses the fear of powerful women as its hook, the way horror flicks of previous generations used metaphors for sex, runaway science and even the emerging 1950s youth culture (i.e. I Was a Teenage Werewolf and its ilk) to tap into audiences’ primal and societal fears.

If there’s anything the movie satirizes effectively, it’s the conformity and groupthink that have always been part of the American conversation, locked in a perpetual debate with individual liberty and the refreshing replenishments of various fringes (immigrants, artists, bohemians, gays, minorities, etc., etc.). It’s not so much of a stretch to believe that the men of Stepford would want to roboticize their wives — who hasn’t at least wished, even fleetingly, for a compliant, controllable spouse? What’s more telling is that the Stepfordization in this film turns all the wives into blonde clones of each other. The funniest scenes show the perpetually high-heeled wives working out, dancing and singing in the kind of perfect unison the Rockettes can only dream about. Director Oz, choreographer Patricia Birch and costumer designer Ann Roth deserve credit for making these jokes snap visually. And the eventual plot twist, revealing the real mastermind behind all this enforced niceness, shows the men to be easily manipulated dupes themselves, desiring a blonde ideal because, well, that’s what everybody wants, right?

Screenwriter Rudnick (Jeffrey, In & Out) has a sharp ear for stereotypes of all stripes, as anyone knows who has read his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written under the nom de plume Libby Gelman-Waxner. He’s also one of the funniest writers working today, even when he comes off like a cute gay court jester, shucking and jiving and making jokes for the straight folk. But what has seemed clumsy or vaguely insulting in movies like In & Out— the assertion that Kevin Kline’s unconsciously closeted character HAD to be gay because he was smart, sensitive and liked Barbra Streisand — takes a refreshing twist in Stepford.

Rudnick accomplishes this by splitting the brash, loud Paula Prentiss best-friend-of-the-heroine character from the 1975 Stepford into a pair of complementary outsiders: sarcastic, sloppy Jew (Bette Midler) and snarky, queeny gay man (impish Roger Bart). Before their Stepfordization, both are embarrassments to their spouses (schlumpy Jon Lovitz and straight-acting Log Cabin Republican David Marshall Grant, respectively). But because they don’t have to carry the weight that heroine Nicole Kidman does, they are allowed to both be funny and to have fun. It’s a nice bit of progress for a film to acknowledge that there are many kinds of gay people, and that stereotypes can be confining but they can also be liberating (television’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” with its spectrum, however narrow, of gay male types, performs much the same function).

Kidman’s character Joanne, a TV network head fired when her man-baiting, man-hating reality shows go too far, is made to suffer from something more insidious than an evil spouse (hubby Matthew Broderick plots more in sorrow than in anger) — Career Woman Self-Doubt. If there’s any major flaw in this Stepford, it’s that Kidman is far more convincing in the opening scenes as a superpowered network exec, using her height and athleticism to stride onto a stage to the cheers of her audience of affiliates, than she ever is as a worried, fretful hausfrau wannabe in the movie’s midsection.

The film’s explanation for her comedown — that she has a nervous breakdown after being fired, and so is really motivated to try and change her life — is basically an excuse to get this black-dress-wearing, ball-busting female to conformist Connecticut in the first place. As it did in Moulin Rouge and Cold Mountain, Kidman’s innate strength is at odds with the victimy aspects of her characters in those films. I hope she does play Samantha Stephens in a planned film version of “Bewitched,” even if the movie is a mess, as it’s likely to be. Samantha never really apologizes for being a strong, smart, powerful woman, even when Darrin has been turned into a goat. And it’s her choice to keep herself and her powers at least partially under wraps. That’s something Kidman could play, especially if she can figure out how to twitch her nose.

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