We're almost halfway through 2004, the unofficial Year of the Remake, and we've yet to encounter anything worthwhile from the rehash bin. Here's another case in point: Frank Oz's update of The Stepford Wives, a bitter little throwaway that manages to come off as even worse than the original.
The 1975 Stepford (and Ira Levin's book) was a piece of Americana that was so influential it became part of American slang. It unfortunately isn't a very good movie: If anyone can even remember how it ends, I dare you to e-mail me.
The 2004 remake has long been marred by bad buzz and endless rumors, including an out-of-control budget that hit $90 million, reshoots, and a new ending chosen by dissatisfied test audiences. All of the polishing seems to have had little effect: What we've got here is a sad and unfunny attempt at melding '70s kitsch with the high-tech tomorrow, with Bette Midler and Christopher Walken along for the ride. That's right, not even the dancing cowbell fanatic can save this debacle.
The skeleton of the original Stepford remains familiar in this outing: TV network president Joanna (Nicole Kidman, in a severe yet attractive hairdo that just might spawn a craze) finds herself given the boot when a reality show implodes. With her nebbish husband Walter (Matthew Broderick), they trek from Manhattan to the less-stressful Stepford, Connecticut, a "perfect" community where the men are dweebs and the wives are beyond the pale.
They aren't in town more than a day before things start getting weird. Joanna's encounters with the local women lead to ostensible comedy - they exercise in sundresses (emulating washing machines) and become impossibly excited about nativity plans. Meanwhile, husband Walter falls in with the local "men's group" run by the enigmatic Mike (Walken), where he learns the dark secret of Stepford.
Strangely, it turns out that not everyone in Stepford has taken the road to "perfection." Joanna meets up with Bobbi (Midler), a man-hating, bitter slob of a writer, and Roger (Roger Bart), a flamboyant gay man living in town. The three become Stepford's pal-around outcasts, engaging in Nancy Drew investigations into the inner workings of the the ditzy blondes and the secretive men's group.
Sadly, it's obvious that these characters are created simply for comic relief, and they make absolutely no sense in the context of the story. How these two got through the gates of a planned community like Stepford remains a total mystery. Or more to the point: Bobbi's husband (played by a grating Jon Lovitz) is a long-time member of the club, so why is his wife such a hardass when all the other guys have perfect spouses?
Best not to think too much about it, because nothing in The Stepford Wives makes sense, anyway. The film is written by Paul Rudnick, whose 1997 In & Out remains his sole decent writing credit. (His two previous credits, Marci X and Isn't She Great, stand as two of the worst films in the past decade.) Here, Rudnick proves yet again that he's got one joke in his arsenal: Poking fun at women and gay stereotypes. The humor is unilaterally off by a mile. Punch lines are missed as only the most obvious comedy paths are taken. Worst of all are the gag lines that periodically spring up, obviously dubbed in and delivered by off camera characters in a desperate attempt to "punch up" the comedy at the last minute.
Kidman's Joanna, for all her meanness and severity, is the only engaging character in the cast. Glenn Close is almost fun as the Stepford matriarch, but it's one-note and gets tiresome. Poor Broderick is given nothing to work with; his character changes every five minutes - from supportive to namby-pamby - to fit the whims of the script. And putting both Midler and Lovitz in one film borders on masochism.
Director Frank Oz, whose The Score was an underrated smash, unfortunately misfires here. The movie spends too long in setting up, too long in wrapping up, and way too long not being funny.
As noted earlier, the movie has another ending somewhere, replaced when it tested poorly. I'm curious to see it, and I hope it'll be included on the DVD release of the film. I figure that'll be out in about 12 weeks, and I promise, you can stand the wait.
Wait over (5 months!), you can get a hint of that ending on the DVDs deleted scenes, and Oz's commentary track discusses other changes made during the editing process. A gag reel and a handful of making-of vignettes round out the disc.
It's for bathing!