The Stepford Wives Movie Review

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Adams Family Values, In and Out ) is wicked with the one-liners, so zingers abound in his tongue-in-cheek reworking of "The Stepford Wives" -- the creepy, retrospectively campy chiller from 1975 about suburban spouses turned into sweet, subservient, June Cleaver robots.

So ripe for lampoonery that the word "Stepford" has become an adjective ironically slapped on anything deemed too Norman Rockwell-esque, the original picture's concept of anti-feminism taken to a paranoid extreme is fodder for raillery in Rudnick's script.

But he isn't remotely as clever when it comes to plot. In fact, as long as he gets a laugh he doesn't seem to care if his story makes a lick of sense. He can't even decide if the automaton wives in his "Stepford" are robots (impervious to fire and prone to shooting sparks from their necks) or real women (brainwashed with microchip implants) who are capable of snapping out of their halcyon daze if their programming fails.

The film begins by taking humorous and well-deserved pot shots at reality TV as Joanna Eberhart -- a career-driven, Type A cable-network president played with harried, control-freak zeal by Nicole Kidman -- introduces her channel's fall line-up at an affiliates' meeting.

But when she's unceremoniously sacrificed to the PR gods soon thereafter -- in the wake of a shooting spree by a contestant on a show that used porn stars to shake up happy marriages -- Joanna has a nervous breakdown. The solution devised by her milquetoast husband (Matthew Broderick) is a move to a pristine, pastel, unsettlingly synthetic Connecticut 'burb for a quieter lifestyle.

This comedy version of "Stepford" quickly runs into trouble, however, because Rudnick and director Frank Oz (who worked together on "In and Out") over-reach for whimsy, with the town's perfectly-coifed and floral-chiffoned wives all behaving conspicuously like women from 1950s kitchen appliance commercials -- crossed with Disneyland automatons. This is good for a modest giggle (at the local spa, still in their dresses and high heels, they do aerobics based on household chores), but it's hardly a snappy foundation for a whole movie since only an idiot couldn't notice something seriously amiss.

Joanna does notice, and along with two other recent arrivals (sharply sardonic feminist self-help author Bette Midler and mock-stereotypical, squeaky-queen token gay guy Roger Bart), begins poking her dubious, liberal, city-slicker nose where it's not welcome. Meanwhile their significant others (Broderick, Jon Lovitz and David Marshall Grant) get a little too cozy at the town's exclusive Men's Club, where the secret of the plastic berg's plastic contentment is revealed (by comically uncanny ringleader Christopher Walken), much to their emasculated temptation.

Rudnick plies the picture with witty wisecracks. (Midler: "All the women around here are perfect sex kitten bimbos and all the men are drooling nerds. Doesn't that seem strange to you?" Kidman: "No. I work in television.") He revels (too much) in silly sight gags (one man's robo-wife doubles as an ATM machine). But he happily shrugs off opportunities to explore the movie's profuse potential for truly wry wit and social commentary.

He's also more guilty than any television genre he mocks for his coupling of ambitious, successful, intelligent women (as Joanna soon learns all the Stepford wives once were) with the kind of slovenly twits that would want to change them into traditional housewives. The marriage of gorgeous, stylish, go-getter Kidman to a demure, khaki-and-Izod clad Broderick never has an ounce of credibility. Neither does Joanna's contrived attempt to jettison her values and become the pastel-clad homemaker she now thinks her husband wants (because goodness knows she wouldn't want to talk to him and work out something that makes them both happy).

As more characters fall victim to Stepfordization, more problems arise. None of the women's children ever wonder what's happened to their mothers (surely Rudnick could have found some dark comedy in that arena had he tried). The wives becoming the ultimate gadgets for their technology-happy hubbies is barely touched on, and the fact that all this is grounds for any divorce -- should the robotic spouses ever become human again -- is never addressed at all.

The film is largely built around a stereotype that is as bad, if not worse, than the outdated ones it ridicules: the sitcom-spawned Emotionally Immature Idiot Husband whose job it is, countless times a week on TV, to realize he's wrong and his wife is right, but not to learn anything from it.

Worse yet, "The Stepford Wives" completely self-destructs in its convoluted, excessively expository, nonsensical, gratuitous-twist finale that depends entirely on one character's dumb-luck instant mastery of the Stepfordization technology.

As it turns out, the movie's opening credits, featuring absurd archival footage of happy wives dancing around those kitchens of tomorrow, make better satire all by themselves than anything in the story that follows.

Comments

The Stepford Wives Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG-13, WIDE: Friday, June 11, 2004

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