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The Stepford Wives - Frank's Take

01/08/2004. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy The Stepford Wives in the USA - or Buy The Stepford Wives in the UK

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The writing is on the wall when a casual comedy that boasts a high-powered cast doesn’t have a single clue as to what it wants to accomplish. And that’s certainly not a vote of confidence for a dark SF movie looking to make mincemeat commentary about the awakening of feminism and the imprisoned role of domicile divas looking to grow beyond their restricted boundaries.

The Stepford Wives (2004)
Paramount Pictures. 1 hour. 33 minutes. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, Glenn Close. Directed by: Frank Oz.

The writing is on the wall when a casual comedy that boasts a high-powered cast doesn’t have a single clue as to what it wants to accomplish. And that’s certainly not a vote of confidence for a movie looking to make mincemeat commentary about the awakening of feminism and the imprisoned role of domicile divas looking to grow beyond their restricted boundaries.

In director Frank Oz’s unevenly schizophrenic comedy/thriller The Stepford Wives, there’s a spotty shrewd attempt to take a sharp-witted stab at the passe "happy homemaker" concept via the contemporary millennium-based mindset.

In any event, Oz’s toothless vehicle is never able to capture the dark humor of its calculated convictions. The movie’s caustic wit is lost in its inconsistent tone and timing. Hence, Oz has difficulty establishing where he wants to have his narrative’s center of cynicism gel creatively. Aided by Paul Rudnick’s head-scratching screenplay, Oz’s halfhearted oscillating ode to the discovery of feminine independence is erratically conceived.

The Stepford Wives movie review

What is this incoherent updated remake’s focused intentions anyway? Does it want to be a fluffy fantasy harboring traces of wry forethought about the ongoing gender wars? Or is it a droll drama looking to underline the subtleties of its kitsch cravings? Whatever the satirical edginess is awkwardly defined as, The Stepford Wives is a wearisome session that has no apparent rhyme or reason to its meandering madness.

When the original The Stepford Wives was released to movie audiences nearly three decades ago, it wasn’t exactly a revolutionary or reverent piece of cinema to behold. However, it was a slice of thrilling camp that spoke to the era of the mid-seventies where the social consciousness of the women’s movement was in full stride. With fictional heroines on the small screen such as Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and real life activists such as Gloria Steinheim leading the charge for the advancement of sisterhood, one could see the inherently ominous message that the 1975 melodrama posed with its bold observations.

Based on the Ira Levin novel, The Stepford Wives introduced some choppy and radical notions that challenged the old-fashioned conventional truth that good resilient women made for dependable housewives where kitchen-bound and child-rearing expectations were an automatic norm to uphold.

The clever giddiness behind Stepford’s polyester period piece was the mere thought of inconvenienced men with antiquated belief systems losing emotional and psychological control over their domesticated wives that dared to aspire beyond washing the pots and the pans. Unfortunately for Oz’s pedestrian direction and Rudnick’s scattershot script, 2004’s edition of The Stepford Wives can only dream of coming close to such a surly sentiment.

Oz’s film tries to evoke a comical nostalgic reaction to the throwback days of the Golden Age of yesteryear when he hints at spotlighting the mechanical June Cleaver prototype homemakers doing their merry-minded chores in the movie’s opening credits. In a blunt and stark contrast, we are introduced to the film’s anti-June Cleaver opposite, the very self-assured and strident Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman).

Joanna is a modern-day professional woman in the demanding world of cable programming aimed at catering to the needs of progressive women that know no meaning to the word meekness. She pushes the envelope with her latest reality show entitled "I Can Do Better" that looks to put an agonizing spotlight on a married couple’s faithful vows. Soon, Joanna’s televised treat will cause an uproarious scene of the most unsettling kind.

While promoting the raucous reality show to the cable network brass, Joanna is thrown for a loop when a maligned husband from the confrontational program busts his way into the staff meeting in an effort to seek revenge for being needlessly ridiculed and humiliated. The gun-wielding misfit fires at Joanna and thankfully misses. Still, the frightening episode leads to the dismissal of Joanne as she can no longer work in cable television given this dubious incident that she helped indirectly perpetuate.

Upon her firing, Joanna decides to leave the craziness behind and relocate elsewhere to start fresh. She departs the area with her moping husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and children and takes up shop in the heavenly haven of Stepford, Connecticut where manicured lawns and handsomely houses hidden behind white picket fences are in total abundance. More importantly, the wives of Stepford are curiously cheery and docile in their suspicious demeanor. The Harriet Nelson-esque frown-challenged clones are dressed like they stepped out of the 1950s pages of Home and Garden.

Joanna obviously finds this weird yet wholesome community both wacky and intriguing. Something is definitely fishy in this Twilight Zone-like suburban arena and you can bet your bottom dollar that the inquisitive Joanna Eberhart has her eye on the peculiar prize. As for Walter, he finds the oddities behind his new hometown to be somewhat enlightening if not different in its engaging trance. In fact, Walter joins a Stepford Men’s club where he gets to wear distinctive jackets and hang out with the carefree guys.

Along to provide comfort and joy in helping Joanna get the skinny on the mysterious mind-bending practices of the Stepford wives that parade around as virtual zombies in bliss are new sidekick Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and gay confidante Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). Bobbie, an ardent feminist author, is the obligatory Ethel Mertz to Joanna’s Lucy Ricardo as the suspecting sasses hope to uncover the secret involving the Stepford mystique.

With Roger in tow, the threesome have a topsy-turvy time observing the robotic women going through the motions while undermining the flexibility of being able to be free thinkers and maintain legitimate feelings of their own. Apparently being male in the Stepford landscape entitles one to enthusiastically push the buttons at will. But being female is an entire matter altogether because your buttons are waiting to be pushed as if its some liberating and mechanical privilege to behold.

The Stepford Wives is never able to grasp its logical and lyrical angles to the point that we buy any of its manufactured ribaldry. For instance, how would Midler’s radical writer and Bart’s flamboyant boytoy Roger ever get a decent chance to infiltrate such a stuffy and conservative cavern as the straight-laced and regimented guise of Stepford’s philosophical lifestyle? Better yet, why would these against-the-grain characters want to be caught dead in such a restrictive and judgmental community anyway? The incidental sight gags and prolonged theme pertaining to the strangeness of these whimsical cardboard characters are drawn out in tedious fashion.

There are occasional snippets of inspired dialogue that adds to the lukewarm levity. And the numerous spoofs addressing the absurdity with reality television and other pop culture phenomenon make their hit-and-miss moments count when needed. The main pulse of the film’s suggestive intonation - the unfair balance between the sexes and the subject matter of autonomy - is left astray for a nonsensical shift in gears that flips from lighthearted lunacy to a dour and drab thrill-seeking story next.

The performances by the main participants fluctuate while failing to capture anything that resonates solidly. Kidman is not as convincing as she would like to be as an investigative gutsy Plain Jane-turned swan looking for clues to expose her bewildering bobby socks surroundings. Broderick’s Walter Eberhart is invisible and utterly wasted in a backseat role that doesn’t seem to utilize him properly in comparison to his transforming on-screen better half Kidman. Both Midler and Bart are walking clichés of a frumpy outspoken feminist intellectual and a swaying wishy-washy garrulous gay guy with the catty comments respectively.

The only ones who emerge from this murky material are the upbeat and incessantly quirky Christopher Walken and Glenn Close as the celebrated "It" couple that defines the Stepford tradition and its magical menacing aura. When it comes to uplifting what amounts to be stultifying fare, the ubiquitous Walken is always a breath of fresh air since he’s had plenty of practice in the past (i.e. Kangaroo Jack, Gigli, Excess Baggage, The Prophecy, etc.).

It’s so hard to tell who will be brainwashed the most when swallowing the spellbound silliness of The Stepford Wives. Will it be the hypnotized harlots that roam aimlessly in this manipulative utopia of nonsense or the misguided moviegoers paying the ultimate price figuratively and literally?

Frank Ochieng

(c) Frank Ochieng 2004.

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