Ah, Stepford. That Connecticut town where all the wives are perfect. Perhaps you stopped by in 1975 when Bryan Forbes filmed Katherine Ross' creepy troubles there. Maybe you trekked in while reading Ira Levin's satirical thriller upon which that film was based. If you feel like a piece of pop culture indelibly linked to the Women's Lib anxieties of the early 1970s can stand any contemporary updating, then director Frank Oz (The Score, In & Out) invites you to drop in again.
After television executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) has a nervous breakdown, she and her dull husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), relocate from the black-granite sterility of Gotham to the bucolic green lawns and mini-mansions of Stepford. Joanna's an Armani-clad square peg amongst the town's other women, who are all vapid, well behaved, and favor pastel chiffon and elaborate hair-dos.
She befriends the town's two other oddball new wives -- the brassy, hippie-ish Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and the way-gay Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), who claims to be an architect, but acts as if he's auditioning for Queer Eye. Meanwhile, Walter easily bonds with the men, all dweebish sorts who hang out at their private clubroom under the tutelage of the town's founder, Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken).
Scuttling any suspense, the film finds Joanna and her two cohorts immediately pegging the town's women as "not quite right" (say, would the sparks flying out of that chick's head be a clue?) and discovering the wives are really robots.
Ironically this tale of the perfect milieu has been beset with pre-release rumors that this was one unhappy set, with stars feuding about the "feel" of the film, the director conceding "differences," and extensive reshoots. Public denials abound, but the film often shifts awkwardly in tone, and the cast and the story never come to life.
Kidman never exhibits the fierce intelligence necessary to make Joanna's humanity feel imperiled; she's just another cold alpha bitch who seems robotic from the get-go. Chemistry between Kidman and the lifeless Broderick? Check the cutting-room floor 'cause it ain't here. Midler can add this film to her column of comic losses. Even Walken, whose idiosyncratic energy and slightly malevolent style would seem tailor-made for the role of Stepford's mad genius, seems weary. Singer Faith Hill makes her film debut, but any distinction between her role as a Stepford Wife and how she's usually presented -- as a bland picture-perfect wife-mother-country superstar -- was surely lost. Hooray then for Glenn Close -- the only bright cast member in this rudderless mess; she finds the perfect note for the town's grande dame, Claire -- so genuinely charming but with a tinge of mania, just enough to make you wonder.
Screenwriter Paul Rudnick can be a scream, but here he leans heavily on one-liners at the expense of a cohesive plot. If the gals are artificially created perfect robots, then why do they need to attend exercise class to slim their figures? Presumably so a belabored aerobics song-and-dance number can be worked in. I sense the filmmakers just don't care, and are simply out to riff on the original tale while dragging an A-list star through their mucky, Lilly Pulitzer-bedecked wake. This film is not quite a parody -- it takes the premise of Stepford too seriously and has no over-arching comic theme; nor is it a mystery and it's certainly no social critique.
The ethos that fueled the original Stepford Wives was fantasy, yet it was rooted in the reality of old-boy business networks, a generation of women discovering their potential outside of the home, and the social and economic conflicts wrought by the sexual revolution. To watch that older film today is to invite some giggling at its dated social paranoia, but the film cut its satire with an artificial, but compelling, sense of foreboding. The discovery of the Stepford plot was gradually revealed: In part, its existence was brilliantly masked by the still-viable social convention that a wife should behave like a compliant slave.
This Stepford tries to update the gender wars, but frankly, the reimagining makes no sense, not even as satire. The corruption of which these women must be cured is that they are unquestionably publicly powerful women -- executives, judges and such. They aren't threatening to usurp power -- they are in charge! They're reduced to robots because -- according to this head-shaking new story -- each made the mistake of marrying an ineffectual nerd boy, who is now sulky that the dynamic bride he took turned out to be ... a dynamic woman. Back in 1975, the tension was between career and idealized homemaking. Somebody forgot to tell the filmmakers that today's fantasy woman isn't a '50s-style wife and mother, but a superwoman: a gal who has a great job, and raises great kids, and has a great relationship with her husband. The ideal role has expanded, not shrunk, rendering this satiric model obsolete.
In fairness, the film ultimately tries to address this, but by that point -- after a 180-degree plot twist that literally makes heads come off -- it only layers a second illogic atop the first. But if you did care to think about it, you'd find that this new tacked-on critique simply negates the hour-and-a-half that came before. It's enough to make your own head start sparking.