"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
"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.