The Stepford Wives (2004) Review

The following review assumes some familiarity with the story of the film. If you wish to keep the surprises of Stepford intact then please jump down to my review of the disc

The 1975 film The Stepford Wives seems to be considered something of a classic. But I’m very much afraid that, in this case, the memory is not so much cheating as hacking into your bank account and running off with your partner. The combination of Bryan Forbes’ typically somnolent direction and some dreadfully wooden performances turn a promising social satire into a silly would-be gothic science fiction movie. William Goldman’s script contains a few good lines but is generally as tired and creaky as the plot. Worst of all, the Stepford Wives themselves are hardly the knockdown gorgeous babes required by the story. If you doubt me, I offer as conclusive evidence the presence in the cast of Nanette Newman as a supposedly irresistible spouse. Who in their right mind (except Bryan Forbes, her husband) would choose to make Nanette Newman ?

Consequently, the concept of a remake didn’t have the same distressing effect on me as it seems to have had on some other people. Ira Levin’s concept in his original novel is clever enough but rather cumbersomely worked out and Bryan Forbes made the mistake of treating it seriously. Frank Oz’s remake, which has come in for some pretty harsh criticism, doesn’t make a similar error. It’s a light, frothy comedy which is, perhaps, a little insubstantial but witty and stylish enough to provide plenty of entertainment.

How much you enjoy the remake of The Stepford Wives will almost certainly depend on how you react to Paul Rudnick’s screenplay. Rudnick is a fine comic writer who has a very distinctive style which is ultra-camp and incredibly bitchy. Some audiences can’t abide this and if you don’t like his dialogue then you probably won’t like the film. If, like me, you can’t get enough self-consciously camp comedy – “I like Prozac with a Viagra chaser. You’re up and then you’re... up” - then you’ll probably enjoy yourself as much as I did. Every time Rudnick writes a one-liner, it’s a zinger. His problem turns out to be the structure. The film sticks to the plot of the original for about three quarters of its length then goes off onto a whole new tack towards the end. It’s noticeable that it’s only when Rudnick’s screenplay tries to get a more traditional Hollywood ending that the film falls apart and he can’t give it the subversive spin that he brought to the equally traditional endings of In And Out and Addams Family Values. But he does enough here to make the film a refreshingly spiteful rejoinder to the way that feminists and homosexuals are portrayed in mainstream cinema. The main gay character, Roger, is unapologetically camp and this is defined as normal. When he begins dressing conservatively and ‘blending in’ as an acceptably socialised gay man, the alarm bells ring. What I like about Rudnick’s writing is that he effortlessly turns social conformity into the ‘Other’ – it’s not hard to imagine what his response would have been to Tom and Antonio holding hands and blending in while suffering their way through Philadelphia. He also pulls off a clever spin on the climax. Stepford turns out not to be a male fantasy but a woman’s pre-feminist fairy-tale ending.

The look of the film is quite stunning and complements the story perfectly. The production design by Jackson DeGovia and costumes by Ann Roth are, quite simply, remarkable. This is one of the best looking Hollywood films I’ve seen for a long time. It’s all of a piece and you don’t get the feeling of various talented technicians showing off and working in a vacuum. David Arnold’s music is also pretty good, although he seems to have contracted a dose of the Danny Elfmans – there’s more than a little borrowed from Scrooged here. Frank Oz responds to this environment with his best job of direction since In And Out back in 1997. There’s a bounce to the film which keeps it moving and allows the performers to play off each other. He also pulls off some good parodies, especially a hilarious pastiche of a 1950s science infomercial.

Nicole Kidman is very entertaining in what is basically a broad comedy role and she doesn’t make the mistake of playing her grim career woman on one note. Her character has a believable sense of confusion about her emotions and her motives and there’s a lovely scene where she simply breaks up laughing while sneaking in to a neighbour’s house. I’ve seen Kidman do some brilliant work but it’s a while since she’s been as simply likeable as she is here. Matthew Broderick is finally able to use his rather creepy boyish manner – hopelessly unsuitable in a middle aged actor – in a manner which is suitably sinister. It’s easy to believe that this adult/teenager would be attracted simultaneously to the twin clichés of the dominant woman and the submissive wife. It’s almost as if he’s still going through puberty. In the supporting roles, Bette Midler (playing the writer of a book about her mother called "I Love You, But Please Die") gives her best performance for years, relishing Rudnick’s dialogue and making a bitchy castrating feminist very likeable. Glenn Close is obviously having a marvellous time in a rare comic role – she’s an accomplished comedienne on stage but tends not to have indulged this in the cinema – and Christopher Walken is always good value.

As I stated above, it’s somewhat insubstantial and if you’re expecting a completely coherent film then you’ll be disappointed. The story logic is far from consistent and is a single instance when the change to Levin's original is seriously damaging to the film as a whole. The plot also begins to break up towards the end, despite the twist given to the original story, and the occasional sermonising is incredibly irksome – you can’t believe that Oz and Rudnick could possibly be offering these trite homilies to married love with a straight face. But I had a great time watching this film and laughed long and loud throughout. I also have no hesitation in stating that it leaves the 1975 film for dead and is more subversive than Ira Levin’s original novel. It’s also got the most interesting suggestion for how a pine-cone can best be used that I’ve ever heard – I was almost tempted to buy a vibrator and try it out.

The Disc

The film is presented as a one-disc Special Edition which has some impressive content. It’s not exactly a DVD which demands to be bought but if you want to see the film then this is certainly a good way to do so.

Presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, the film looks stunning throughout. The level of detail is superb, contrast is exceptional and the colours are enough to knock you out of your chair. I can’t imagine this looking much better and only a small amount of artifacting in the dark interior scenes spoils the overall effect.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also very good. There’s not a great deal of action from the surrounds – this isn’t that kind of film – but it’s very atmospheric and the music score sounds particularly full. Dialogue is always eminently clear.

There are quite a number of extras included, mostly in the form of short documentaries devised by Laurent Bouzereau. These do tend to repeat material and the only really worthwhile item is a 20 minute making-of feature called “A Perfect World”. But there are good interviews and some interesting aspects to each of the pieces and none are completely negligible. The one on “The Stepford Husbands” features a fair amount of Jon Lovitz which is either a good or bad thing depending on how much Jon Lovitz you can take.

There’s an excellent audio commentary courtesy of Frank Oz. He speaks thoughtfully about his thoughts on making the film and anticipates a number of criticisms which have been made about it. But he’s not defensive and he’s very complimentary about the people whom he worked with.

A selection of deleted scenes are offered. Some of these are pretty good, especially the unnerving “Bobbie’s Kitchen” and “Herb on Pole” – which finally gives Faith Hill something to do - but it’s easy to see why they were discarded. Finally, we get a gag reel – not essential but mildly diverting – and a couple of trailers.

There are 16 chapter stops. The film is subtitled in English as are all of the extra features, including the commentary. Kudos to Dreamworks for this, an extra step which benefits a substantial minority of viewers.

The Stepford Wives has been heavily criticised but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It takes a clapped-out old plot and flips it just enough to make it worth trying again. The DVD is excellent and presents the film to its best advantage.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:04:10

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