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The Stepford Wives

movie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill, Glenn Close, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz, Lorri Bagley, Mike White, Christopher Evan Welch, Robert Stanton, Kate Shindle

Review by Harvey Karten
2 stars out of 4

"The Stepford Wives" enjoyed considerable impact when released in 1975 under the direction of Bryan Forbes. That original version was based on a novel by Ira Levin, known for suspenseful plots such as "The Boys from Brazil," a story of former Nazi chieftain Dr. Josef Mengele's plan to breed a new race of Hitlers. Utilizing a similar, if less insidious theme, the original "Stepford Wives" served as a treatise against male chauvinist pigs who react against their feminist wives by turning them into robots, ready to satisfy every male need. The chief frisson of that version comes when the last remaining human woman is converted into an automaton without individuality, wit or creative urges outside the kitchen or bedroom. This time around, the suspense is gone. Maybe the audience, whether having the original or heard about it through the media, are already versed in the plot. More important, though, Frank Oz delivers his material without a single chill, preferring to dumb down the wit and originality of Levin's story by reaching for broad comedy.

Oz fails in several ways. One is that aside from a gag about Connecticut, another about AOL, and a few about Jews and gays, the comedy is flat as a fallen cake baked from any of a number of Stepford wives, sitcomish at best. More important, though, the satire is both toothless and free-floating, the references tepid, the barbs unfocused. Are we meant to protest against the rage of the upper-middle classes for plastic perfection, replacing the very human traits of fallibility and the screed against living large with huge houses, a new car or two in every garage and grocery carts filled to the ceiling? Or is this, like the 1975 version, yet another gasp by men who have still not accepted basic feminist beliefs, pigs who are threatened because their women make more money, have more powerful and prestigious jobs, and even play tennis better while the guys have to settle for the slow-moving (and to my mind irritating) strokes of the golf course? Is this more a parody of the recent phenomenon of TV reality shows? Or does Oz want to emphasize the evils of rampant technology? By diffusing the targets, Oz fails to hit any square in the bulls-eye.

Nicole Kidman performs as Joanna Eberhard, a razzle-dazzle TV executive whose reality show ruins the life of a nice guy from Omaha (Mike White), thereby finding herself out of a job and in the midst of a nervous breakdown. To relieve the tension, her husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), moves his wife and family to the quiet suburb of Stepford CT and joins the men's club where the smug guys wear fraternity-style uniforms, smoke cigars and drink bourbon, and express their satisfaction at having wives who are unendingly pliant. Walter is introduced by his new buddies to the method behind the town's madness, and soon Joanna catches on to the fact that the only woman who acts normal is the sloppy and hence human Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler).

Not only is the satire muddled: we get mixed messages about who these pliant women are. Have the men killed their wives and modeled new creations using the women's features, or, as the picture indicates on another level, have the men simply implanted the women with microchips in order radically to change their behavior?

There are solid performances from Christopher Walken whose name, Mike, turns out to be a nickname for Microsoft, from Glenn Close as the town's rah-rah cheerleader, and from Bette blonde women and their cigar-chomping men. The picture is brief, the plot moves quickly. But confusion about its central focus has likely been responsible for a reworking by the crew as recently as month before the opening as transitional scenes appear to have been left on the cutting room floor leaving a conclusion as tepid as its attempted satire.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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