The Stepford Wives
dir. Frank Oz
In the 18 years since the flytrap fun of Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s career has seemed equally harmless on the surface: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, HouseSitter, The Indian in the Cupboard, In & Out, Bowfinger and The Score. But with a closer look, these movies have a disquieting, almost angry edge to them. Michael Caine really did want to kill Steve Martin by the end of shooting Scoundrels, which is how Richard Dreyfuss felt about Bill Murray on the set of What About Bob? HouseSitter muddles Goldie Hawn’s motivations, giving the film a cynical bent that a strictly formulaic comedy would draw much clearer. With In & Out, Oz seems to be actively embarrassing Kevin Kline — consider the riff on his famous Big Chill scene — while at the same time making Tom Selleck (so conservative he played Dwight Eisenhower in an A&E movie) shave his mustache, play an openly gay reporter and actually kiss Kline. For Bowfinger, in addition to casting Heather Graham as the sleep-around, fresh-off-the-bus actress skank, Oz cleaved a role originally intended for Keanu Reeves in two and cast Eddie Murphy, then mocked Murphy’s celebrity paranoia and his newfound, kids-movie persona. And then there’s The Score, a completely formulaic heist movie notable for casting Edward Norton — advertised as both the next DeNiro and the next Brando — opposite the actual DeNiro and Brando, and then reducing Norton in front of his idols to a redux of his faux-schizo role in Primal Fear.
Oz’s modus operandi is casting actors in roles that play to real-life anxieties. When asked about the well-documented tensions of the set of The Stepford Wives, Oz replied, “Tension on the set? Absolutely. In every movie I do, there’s tension. That’s the whole point.” Does this sound like a director of wacky Hollywood comedies? After all, this is the same man who entertained the Star Wars crew during on-set downtime by using his Yoda puppet to talk about cunnilingus.
The problem is that Oz wants it both ways. For instance, every time Murray and Dreyfuss threaten to take What About Bob? into darker territory, the movie falls back to rely on shtick. For In & Out, Oz teamed with his Stepford screenwriter Paul Rudnick (who is himself openly gay) to create a movie that takes a surprisingly WASPy approach to homosexuality. The same frustration runs throughout every Frank Oz movie: You want him to unleash the hounds of black comedy, but he’s too timid and instead opts for tossing the audience bones to gnaw on. In Hollywood, a black comedy isn’t an opportunity to engage the audience with humor to provoke a disquieting response, but to milk a worthwhile premise for ironic gags. Oz wants both, and he’ll never make a truly great film until someone pushes him to take the risks inherent to his natural instincts.
With The Stepford Wives, Oz and Rudnick have remade Bryan Forbes and William Goldman’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s intriguing and controversial novel of the early ’70s. The original’s Stepford is a place where the men immerse themselves in their club while their wives — or, rather, the robots with which they’ve been replaced — live exceedingly obedient and docile lives. The tone is straight horror with an undercurrent of satire, which takes on the emasculation anxiety that arose from the burgeoning feminism of the era. Edgy for its time because of its prescience, this material has been ceaselessly covered since — yes, there’s darkness lurking under the homogenized perfection of suburban life. Oz and Rudnick’s plan is to remake it as a comedy and still retain its satire, which may be the only way to translate the horror of the ’70s into these cynical, ironic times — think of the difference between the melodrama of Ordinary People and the humor injected into American Beauty. But the test audiences didn’t buy the darkness, and the studio got anxious about its box office. For instance, that the wives were killed to make room for the robots was considered too unpopular for a summer comedy. And so the death of 1,000 cuts began and, just like the Stepford wives themselves, the film has been transformed from something organic and alive into a pleasure-giving machine.
Ultimately, a film about emasculation anxiety has itself been emasculated. The film’s enough, but shares Bowfinger’s fatal flaw: Its gaping plot holes perpetually distract from the genuine satire. In fact, The Stepford Wives has been edited into nonsense. A woman passes out, and Joanna insists on trying to give her first aid even though she has no discernible first aid training; her rationale is simply that she “ran a network, surely I can take care of this.” In a mildly amusing bit, one of the wives is, literally, an ATM who spits cash out of her mouth. But then we learn the Stepfordization process is accomplished by altering the brain with computer chips — i.e., the body never becomes a machine. But there are also actual robots, and they seem capable of abstract reasoning that might make Professor Hobby of A.I. pause.
Even with its sellout ending and ridiculous plot points, there’s enough meta in the film that the charitable might forgive it — how can you hate a movie that casts Faith Hill as a bland, pleasure-giving, hyper-orgasmic robot? Of course, if Oz were a true visionary, he would have cast Tim McGraw as her Stepford husband, but there’s still plenty of wonderful material here; even the ad campaign featured Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice as Stepford wives. This is Rudnick’s best script; he strikes a blow against Log Cabin Republicans (the Stepfordized gay man throws away his loud shirts and decides to run for state senate) and “castrating Manhattan career bitches.” Bette Midler plays a Jewish author whose book about her mom is entitled “I Love You, but Please Die.” The film opens with a pithy deconstruction of reality shows — “I Can Do Better” puts Mike White in virtually the same spineless bland white man role he played in School of Rock, and, having been cuckolded on national TV by a troupe of bodybuilder prostitutes, gets revenge by firing a gun at network president Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman).
There’s an admirable amount of pure hate in this movie, and sure enough, Oz casts the film to set nerves on edge. For instance, Matthew Broderick — husband of “Sex and the City’s” Sarah Jessica Parker — gets the role that plays directly to his personal struggle with his wife’s success: Walter Kresby, a nerdy, moderately successful but very ordinary guy married to a sexy, ambitious and famous network executive. Broderick, even with his “The Producers” success, has admitted to having anxiety about the fact that his wife is the star of the family: “In the back of my mind, there is a little man saying, ‘Are you keeping up? Are you, you know, are you becoming little?'”
Walter is already very little compared to his wife (“Eberhard” being a corruption of priapism, after all), so Oz forces Broderick to play this against the pure image of Hollywood grace, beauty, talent and success, Nicole Kidman. The couple moves to Stepford, Conn. to relax. “Electroshock?” asks welcome wagoneer Claire (Glenn Close), spying a passed-out, exhausted Joanna in the passenger’s seat. “But she’s feeling much better,” responds Walter. The rest of the film involves Walter’s initiation into the Stepford Men’s Club (led by Claire’s husband Mike, in a creepy/funny role only Christopher Walken could play) and Joanna’s discovery of Stepford’s dark secrets. Walter befriends the unattractive, obnoxious men of the town (embodied by Jon Lovitz) who are too rich to work and instead fight their homemade battlebots; Joanna befriends a feminist author (Bette Midler) and a flamboyant gay man (Roger Bart), who mock the wives’ propensity for baking and exercising in heels and housedresses.
The movie unfolds in a series of jokes until the third act, which takes a cynical, angry turn. Joanna discovers Stepford’s secret, and becomes trapped in the giant gothic mansion of the Men’s Club, surrounded in the atrium by the Stepford men, dressed in their burgundy jackets. Oz unmistakably conjures an image of Eyes Wide Shut. Kidman and Tom Cruise spent two years making that movie with Stanley Kubrick, trapped in endless reshoots and psychological and emotional torture. The timeline suggests that the filming of that movie hay have led directly to the end of the marriage, and so Oz plays with his actress’ very public and very distressing personal anxieties, countering the inadequacies already heaped upon Broderick. Kidman — ex-wife of Sexiest Man Alive and biggest movie star in the world — put her career on hold (taking mostly girlfriend roles) to raise the children while he was away making blockbusters. And like Joanna, her husband seemingly forced her to choose between her marriage and her independence. When the jokes stop, Broderick and Kidman turn what was a wacky comedy into something so sinsiter that it throws off the tone of film when the gags pick back up again.
In short, no wonder there was tension on this set. Oz seems to have cast his entire movie with this same meta-eye, as if digging into his actors’ anxieties would create some sort of alchemic darkness in his movie. Close, whose rabbit boiling in Fatal Attraction is the cinematic icon of a “strong woman” gone wrong, is reduced to a groveling shadow of Bombeck-era imagery. Lovitz is the apotheosis of masculine impotence and loserness. And in his most heinous act of directorial cruelty, Oz casts Midler almost solely to ridicule her — not content just to have her as the “ugly duckling” among the Stepford-like actresses, he also dredges up memories of the role that killed her hopes for a comeback: the awful writer Jacqueline Susann in Isn’t She Great? He even openly mocks Midler when Walter, making a joke of the cliché, tells Stepford that Joanne is “the wind beneath my wings.”
Thematically, this meanness, as has been misinterpreted by (mostly male) critics, isn’t levelled at feminism; the penultimate scene reveals that this movie isn’t attacking feminism at all. The original ends with the wives blissfully pushing their carts through a grocery store; here, the husbands — humiliated and confused — bump down the aisle, asking each other where the tampons are. The real scorn in The Stepford Wives is directed at Lovitz — not the actor per se, but the battlebots-loving, market-watching, proud-of-his-gut, Hemi-in-my-SUV fake-macho American male he embodies. These guys don’t want the talented women they married; they want robots to help facilitate their transition from geek to what Nick Hornby describes as “Men’s Magazine Cool.”
This is an easy enough target, but The Stepford Wives ups the ante in its third act: The women have to submit to the microchip surgery. Mike calms everybody when Joanna and Walter face the question of Stepfordization because the women always ask for the microchip surgery. In this, the Oz and Rudnick argue that the logical end of career-woman feminism is the unwinnable, and ultimately self-destructive, quest for perfection because men are too selfish to devote themselves to their wives, as the wives would do for them.
The emasculation anxiety of the American male trumps the ambition of the new American woman — Mike tells Joanne, “While you women were busy becoming men, we men became gods.” Further still, the tone of Oz and Rudnick’s film and the way it relentlessly mocks the rituals of the Stepford Men’s Club (the fembots even caddy for them) seem to be trying to offend its target audience, basically telling suburban men that if they fantasize about Stepford wives, then they are Jon Lovitz. Now that’s a horrifying thought, and had the filmmakers not Stepfordized their own movie, the punch might have landed.
— Stephen Himes (firstname.lastname@example.org)