The Stepford Wives (2004) Review

Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman) is a high-flying New York television executive and the brains behind a series of hit reality TV shows in which dimwitted members of the public are humiliated for the amusement of their peers (think Temptation Island or Wife Swap). Her successful but callous career comes to an end when a contestant whose marriage was destroyed by one of Joanna's shows goes on a killing spree. Narrowly escaping with her life and losing her job, Joanna decides she's been paying too much attention to her career and not enough to her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two children. When Walter suggests moving out of New York and starting afresh in a small town called Stepford, she agrees.

Stepford is an exclusive, gated community in Connecticut where the rich live in high-tech mansions set in leafy, landscaped surroundings. The ambience is an odd mixture of the 1950s and the 21st century and so is the behaviour of its residents. While the men drive expensive cars, watch sports and play video games in their Stepford Mens' Association clubhouse, their wives seem to be interested only in keeping their houses clean, staying pretty and pleasing their husbands. They look like supermodels and dress like Donna Reed. Naturally the power-suited Joanna finds it difficult to fit in among women who spend their afternoons baking and taking aerobics classes, despite the welcoming efforts of town matriarch Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) and her husband Mike (Christopher Walken). While Walter delights in his new, laddish lifestyle, Joanna rebels and she teams up with fellow misfits Bobbie (Bette Midler), a Jewish feminist and Roger (Roger Bart), an effeminate gay man, to try and discover Stepford's secret.

The ending of The Stepford Wives is one of the most well-known "surprises" in popular culture, like the truth about Norman Bates's mother and the main ingredient of Soylent Green. The twist worked not only as storytelling but as satirical comment on the changing relations between men and women in the age of womens' lib. In 1972, when Ira Levin's book was published, feminism was reaching small-town America and his tale of suburban menfolk who go to extreme lengths to maintain the status quo had a real sting to it. The remake's writer Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz come to the material with two immediate disadvantages - firstly, most people know the twist (the trailer doesn't even try to disguise it) and secondly, the idea that women ought to be like the Stepford wives is now so far behind us that they seem less like sinister throwbacks than weirdos in fancy dress.

Rather than try to update the thriller to contemporary times, Oz and Rudnick have decided to play it for laughs. Their approach doesn't work. Whatever potential for humour exists in Ira Levin's story has been poorly realised in this lead balloon of a comedy. Rudnick's jabs at suburbia, male chauvinism and Middle America are weak prods at targets that have been comprehensively pulverised by countless, better satirists. Down And Out In Beverly Hills, Pleasantville and even Caddyshack poke fun at the same whitebread Americans with far more wit and insight. Rudnick's script by contrast seems like the work of a smart-ass Manhattanite who has little knowledge of his subject matter and mocks what he's learned about it from the media.

The remake is also a failure as social comment. Part of the tale's bite was that its characters were everyday suburbanites who concocted their evil plot at the country club. The villains were your neighbours. By turning the men into laughable nerds and the women into severe, power-dressed executives, the remake goes for cheap laughs and neuters its own satire. Of course these geeks are threatened by their wives! Why would such men marry powerful career women in the first place unless they wanted to be bossed around? For that matter, why would powerful career women marry geeks? As a battle of the sexes, this is as dumb and contrived as the trashy shows Joanna used to produce. It also doesn't help that our heroine and her sidekicks, the acid-tongued yenta and the mincing homosexual are no less ridiculous and stereotypical than the smiling housewives. We're watching the New York caricatures take on the New England caricatures. This is social satire?

Stars Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick can't make much out of their shallow, poorly written roles. Kidman's character changes from awful media bitch to sensitive wife and mother to Nancy Drew-style investigator on a scene-by-scene basis while Broderick's barely registers. There are some consolations provided by the supporting cast, notably Glenn Close and Christopher Walken who make a nice, creepy couple, and Jon Lovitz, playing Bette Midler's slobby husband, is always fun to watch. The script does have some funny dialogue. Paul Rudnick previously scripted Addams Family Values, a rare sequel superior to the original, and he writes snappy one-liners. Even if they don't get beyond the level of an average Friends episode, they make the film bearable, although not worthwhile.

Overall

4

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:18:38

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