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"This version quickly falls in and out of form, deviating from comedy to thriller...losing the social significance of the original."
"Levin's spirit and suspenseful pacing have disappeared."
"Refuses to go all out with comedy and re-invent and re-imagine the original storyline."
The Stepford Wives  

Cast

Joanna Eberhart: Nicole Kidman
Walter Kresby: Matthew Broderick
Bobbie Markowitz: Bette Midler
Mike Wellington: Christopher Walken
Claire Wellington: Glenn Close
Sarah Sunderson: Faith Hill
Roger Bannister: Roger Bart
Dave Markowitz: Jon Lovitz
Review June 2004

"The Stepford Wives" is a remake of the biting 1970's cult hit about status quo, social values, and suburbia. It deals with a society of chauvinistic men, their pleasing women, and the horrible truth that dictates their behavior. Directed by master puppeteer, Frank Oz, this updated version recounts the tale of Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their move to the upscale Stepford community, where everything exudes a fantastical perfection. The story itself is a mystery, adapted from the classic by Ira Levin, whereby its heroine attempts to find an explanation for the strange behavior of her new neighbors. But this version quickly falls in and out of form, deviating from comedy to thriller and vice versa, losing the social significance of the original, and exhibiting a cozy complacency.

Joanna Eberhart, successful president of EBS, a television network that specializes in reality programs with a feminine edge, fails to garner support from her network's affiliates, is fired, and then suffers a nervous breakdown. To help her recoup, her husband moves her to a quiet, upper class community in Stepford, Connecticut. But the real reason for the move, says Walter, is so that "we can be the happiest family in the whole world." Upon their arrival, Joanna and Walter are instantly welcomed by Mike and Claire Wellington, the town's main representatives and are ushered into the Stepford Men's Association and the Stepford Day Spa for the women of Stepford. But beneath all the artificial hellos and how do you dos, something doesn't seem right. And for Joanna, everything seems all too perfect.

At a community picnic, Joanna makes friends with Bobbie Markowitz, a Jewish writer and recovering alcoholic famous for her motherly story, "I Love you, but please die." Bobbie and Joanna seem to be the only women dressed and acting differently. So together, they attend book club meetings, fitness classes, and political rallies, finally concluding that the wives of Stepford are inhuman, cleaning to perfection, dressing for success, satisfying their husbands sexually, and studying up on the latest Christmas recipes and crafts. Furthermore, Joanna and Bobbie notice an odd behavior in their husbands, almost a dismissive attitude about their findings, and decide to investigate the mysterious happenings behind the closed doors at the Stepford Men's Association.

"The Stepford Wives" originally hit the theaters in the 70's as a psychological thriller, starring Katherine Ross and Peter Masterson in the leading roles, and it went on to spawn several remakes and television spin offs, etching itself permanently into pop culture. The film is based on the novel by the same title by Ira Levin, who in the 60's and 70's, became notorious for chilling mysteries like "Rosemary's Baby," "A Kiss Before Dying" and "The Boys from Brazil," works that reflected a common thread - a woman is placed in a dysfunctional situation with artificial appearances and realities and is left alone to discover the truth. For instance, in Levin's most recognized work, "Rosemary's Baby," the heroine wakes up to discover she is pregnant, her husband may have sold his soul to the devil, and the baby might be Satan's own child! Imagine that shocking surprise!

But in this latest remake of Stepford, Levin's spirit and suspenseful pacing have disappeared. Flirting back and forth between black comedy, thriller, and psychological drama, the film is more like a jack of all genres and a master of none. Some of this can be attributed to the screenplay, which is too hesitant on establishing characters, direction, and purpose. For instance, Joanna is the lead character, but there isn't enough sentimentality built around her to offset the damage she does early in the film. And we don't see enough of her marital relationship to care whether it gets saved or not. We also don't get to see much of the Eberhart children. These essential supporting characters are completely dropped after the first 15 minutes.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick no doubt leaned toward a more modern and comical version of Stepford; however, because so much of the story is rooted in the social values of the late 60's and 70's, the updated elements tend to stand out like a sore thumb: Joanna and the reality television craze, a robot acting as an ATM, brain implants, and a Stepford wife born out of the Queer Eye phenomenon. Most unpolished is the dialogue, which is oftentimes so clunky and forced that Rudnick smears the awkward moments with pass? humor. And I haven't even mentioned the barrage of subliminal advertising and product placement that appears ad nauseam.

Oddly enough, the casting of the film is really pretty good. But with a weak script, it makes the talented look like they are struggling. Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman portrays Joanna Eberhart with an emptiness and cynicism that is distant and completely disconnected. And Broadway star Matthew Broderick desperately tries to work around the porous dialogue with his boyish charm to no avail. Because the Eberharts have nothing at stake, no sense of urgency, and no real sentiment, their depictions wind up robotic and lifeless. That leaves plenty of opportunity for supporting stars to take over and spice things up. Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, and Glenn Close fill in nicely, adding their usual sophistication and wit.

Although I'm a huge fan of Frank Oz, his long running work with the Muppets, and his direction on such twisted comedies as "What About Bob?," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and "In & Out," I have to question his intent and leadership on this film. The original production was significant because it satirized the societal misgivings about the feminist movement and the role of a woman in society as it was evolving during the early 70's. But today, that image is much different. The happy homemaker no longer looks like Donna Reed, replete with aprons and candy colored sundresses. And the film does nothing to update the look and feel, assuming that the modern man still envisions the perfect modern housewife as June Cleever. Thus, by clinging to the clothing styles and mannerisms of the past, the film becomes lost in relevancy and purpose.

"The Stepford Wives" is a great concept that has etched itself into the pop archives. After all, wouldn't it be just swell to replace your spouse with a perfect replica, embodying everything that you could dream or hope for? But the film refuses to go all out with comedy and re-invent and re-imagine the original storyline without the suspense and horror elements. With only a few moments of laughter and amusement, it's plain to see that this Stepford is far from the paradise it sets out to be.



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