The Stepford Wives Review
By Shawn McKenzie 06/16/2004
Apparently, the lack of seeing the original film that a remake is based on can only help it, at least when it comes to me. I went to see the screening of the new Frank Oz-directed The Stepford Wives without having seen the original. I loved it, but my fellow critics didn’t, mainly because it swayed so far from the original’s direction. Personally, when I see a remake, I don’t want to see a carbon copy.
Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a television executive at the top of her game. Her network, EBS, is riding the new wave of reality shows with programs like “Balance of Power,” which pits weak husbands against powerful wives, and “I Can Do Better,” which is essentially “Temptation Island” with married couples. At the EBS upfront presentation, one of the husbands from the latter show confronts Joanna. Hank (Mike White) is upset that his wife Barbara (Carrie Preston) has left him for several of the singles on “Better,” and he had gone on a violent rampage, shooting his now ex-wife and five of her lovers. Before he gets a chance to shoot Joanna, some security guards tackle him. Joanna takes it in stride and even suggests a “reconciliation special” with Hank and Barbara to her boss, Helen Devlin (Mary Beth Peil.) Helen decides instead to fire her, since the network couldn’t afford the lawsuits attributed to the show. After she has some electro-shock therapy due to a nervous breakdown following her firing, Joanna’s husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), a lower-level executive at EBS, quits his job, packs up Joanna and their kids, Peter (Dylan Hartigan) and Kimberly (Fallon Brooking), and moves to Stepford, Connecticut. The town of Stepford seems to be transplanted straight from the fifties, with everyone straight out of a “Leave it to Beaver”-like sitcom. The homes are big and the wives are always merry and obsessed with housework. The leader of the wives, Stepford realtor Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), maintains the status quo. She says that she and her husband, Mike (Christopher Walken), have created a gated utopia void of “crime, poverty, and pushing.” Mike welcomes Walter into the local Men’s Association where he gets to know the other men in Stepford, such as Dave Markowitz (Jon Lovitz), Herb Sunderson (Matt Malloy), Stan Peters (Tom Riis Farrell), Ted Van Sant (Robert Stanton), Ed Wainwright (Christopher Evan Welch), Vic Stevens (Jason Kravits), and gay conservative lawyer Jerry Harmon (David Marshall Grant.) Most of the wives, including Claire, Sarah Sunderson (Faith Hill), Beth Peters (Kate Shindle), Charmaine Van Sant (Lorri Bagley), Carol Wainwright (Lisa Masters), and Marianne Stevens (Colleen Dunn), seem satisfied with only pleasing their husbands. They always keep the house spotless, bake many delicious meals, and have amazing sex with their husbands whenever they want. Walter thinks that this is great, since Joanna has always outshined him, but Joanna thinks that it is too weird, especially since all of the women are attractive, while the men are all dumpy-looking. There were a few spouses in town that didn’t seem robot-like though. Feminist author Bobbie (Bette Midler), Dave’s wife, wears a Deep Purple T-shirt and keeps a trashy house; and architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), Jerry’s life partner, who was brought to Stepford by Jerry because he was embarrassed at how flamboyant and effeminate Roger was, and he hoped that the town would change him. Joanna and Bobbie try to fit in by joining the women’s book club, but the most poignant book that they discuss is a book of Christmas decoration ideas (which is especially uncomfortable for Bobbie, since she is Jewish.) Things get really suspicious when Sarah spins out of control at a town square dance and starts to spark, as if she literally was an actual robot. When Sarah appears to be just fine the next day (and having that amazing sex with Herb at noon), it is odd, but when they find a remote labeled as “Sarah” in their house, they decide to investigate further. They recruit Roger to visit the Men’s Association and snoop around, but when he appears the next day at a town meeting in a conservative suit and makes a surprising announcement that he is running for political office, Joanna gets worried. The final straw comes when Joanna visits Bobbie’s now spotless house and sees that Bobbie has turned into a robot-like drone like the other wives. This of course freaks her out, and she must find a way to either escape the town or submit to being changed herself.
I heard so much about how different this version was from the original that I went out and rented the original. I have to say that I wasn’t very impressed. I kept hearing how creepy and revolutionary the original was, and that it made a statement, which is something that the remake failed to do. I actually hate films that “make a statement,” because I don’t want to go to a film to be lectured to (I can find that in plenty of other areas in my life.) Maybe it was that the original was dated (it came out in 1975) and I’ve seen far creepier movies since then, but I never got any chills watching it. It had little to no sense of humor, and I felt that the end of it deflated its “message” (no, I didn’t find the end “daring” like my fellow critics did.)
The major difference between this one and the original is the much-needed injection of humor. Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick changed the movie from a feminist statement chiller to a dark comedy. Is it scary or chilling? No. Is it funny? Very much so. The funniest scenes in my opinion were the opening scene at the EBS upfront presentation and the book club meeting in the middle (I was cracking up when Midler told the other wives what she would do with a pinecone.) Kidman proves that she can handle comedy just as well as drama, but Broderick was essentially channeling his weak-willed character from Election. Walken was actually toned down here (unusual for him), and Close was doing a combination of Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction and Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians. Midler is the standout in her brief scenes, and Bart is memorable as well. I thought that adding a gay couple was not only reflective of the times, but it also showed the filmmakers’ abilities to steer off the original’s direction in unique ways.
Is the new version of The Stepford Wives perfect? Far from it. There are a few logic problems (I can’t really tell you them without spoiling the ending), and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. If you can look past that, I think that you will enjoy it. It really helps if you have either never seen the original or hated it, because I’ve noticed that people who loved it refuse to enjoy this one. Do you know what you get when you see a carbon copy remake? You get something like director Gus Van Sant’s horrible shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. Sure, this version may have lost its “message,” but at least it achieved its goal of making you laugh.
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