Films, TV, and Theatre


The Stepford Wives (2004)
The Stepford Wives Official Site
The Stepford Wives Clips

Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a successful television producer on the verge of yet another emmy-winning streak of tv shows when she is fired from her job at a pretigious network. She then has a mental breakdown and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two children (Dylan Hartigan, Fallon Brooking) move to Stepford, Conneticut, the most perfectly perfect little town there ever was. The women of Stepfrod spend all day knitting, gardening, exercising in beautiful dresses, and are the most splendid of all women on Earth. Soon, Joanna along with her best-selling author buddy, Bobbie (Bette Midler) and Democratic, flamboyant fairy friend Roger (Roger Bart) realize that something isn't right in Stepford. All is not as perfect as it seems...especially after Roger and Bobbie are turned into perfect portraits of Stepford. Why are the women of Stepfrod so perfect? What do the Stepford Husabnds have to do with the scheme? Will Joanna ultimately uncover the truth? Or are the Stepford coming for her to make her a blonde, bubbly piece of perfection?

Stars: Bette Midler, Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick,
Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, Faith Hill, and Jon Lovitz
Director: Frank Oz

L.A. Weekly
(Ella Taylor)
Photo Scan: Sara the Divine Dutchie (Paramount)

In Bryan Forbes’ 1975 thriller The Stepford Wives, Katharine Ross plays a young painter freshly from boho Manhattan to tory Connecticut, determined to shore up her flagging marriage to a milquetoast husband. Here she is, persuading a feisty new friend (Paula Prentiss) to help her form a consciousness-raising group. “I messed a bit with women’s lib in New York,” she confesses coyly. “I’m not contemplating any Maidenform bonfires, but they could certainly use something around here. Are you game?” Thirty years on, Ross’ Joanna Eberhart would be laughed off the screen as a namby-pamby suburban feminist — or, more likely, dismissed by the smug marrieds of post-feminism as a loser who lacks the smarts to have it all. The time elapsed between the first Stepford Wives and this new remake by Miss Piggy himself, Frank Oz, is also the distance traveled from feminism to backlash. So, far from being a sensitive artist, Nicole Kidman’s Joanna, resplendent in button-up suit and geometric power hairdo, is the go-get-’em president of a company that makes reality-television shows specializing in the humiliation of men. Fired when one of her shows spins out of control, a blitzed Joanna is persuaded by her mild-mannered husband and underling, Walter (Matthew Broderick), to move with their two kids to the insanely picturesque Connecticut town of Stepford. There they receive an effusive welcome from local grande dame Claire Wellington (got up like a lemon meringue and played by Glenn Close with just a hint of Cruella de Vil), her husband, Mike (Christopher Walken), and a bevy of pneumatic belles with empty eyes and mad, frozen smiles. Alarmed by all this unblemished domestic bliss, Joanna teams up with tell-all memoirist Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler, putting her own exuberantly belligerent spin on the role so wonderfully played by Prentiss in the original) and gay lawyer Roger Bannister (a very funny Roger Bart) to try to uncover the secret behind the submissive wives and their schlubby but dominating husbands.

The original, written by William Goldman from the novel by Ira Levin, drew its sinister energy from an unconscious ambivalence toward the very women’s movement it sought to champion — and also from a mix of fear and hostility to capitalism, technology and suburbia. Reincarnated as social satire, the remake also takes on current hot-button issues: grasping corporations, technology run amok in the service of conspicuous consumption, anodyne Republicanism and ball-busting women. Contrary to recent rumors that it was a dud, the new Stepford Wives, with its chocolate-box visual style, archly heavy-handed foreshadowing and its scene-for-scene parody of the original’s fright strategies (Walken’s waxy menace is once again played for laughs), is a gas. It’s a relief to see Kidman, so gratuitously savaged by Lars von Trier in the awful Dogville, all lightened up and playing wittily off Midler and Bart. But while screenwriter Paul Rudnick (who wrote Oz’s other good movie, In & Out) adds at least one significant insight to the original’s paranoid take on the battle of the sexes — that the Stepford community of “drooling dweebs and mindless babes” replicates the gender division we see every day on sitcoms and reality TV — there’s a price to be paid for all this levity. At the end, the movie turns some entertaining twists on the first movie that, coupled with a perky humanistic climax, may satisfy audiences’ desire for a marital happily-ever-after. For the sake of a good laugh, Oz forfeits precisely what makes the first Stepford Wives still so compelling — its critique of fascism. (Ella Taylor)

The robo-babes are back in town with hilarious retooling of 'Stepford'

By Wesley Morris, Globe Staff
Photo Scan: Sara the Divine Dutchie (Paramount)
Boston Globe
Published: 06/11/2004

Judging from the frantic worry surrounding Paramount's "Stepford Wives" remake, you'd think the movie was a Democrat running for president. But watching this satire, you realize that the folks who've made it aren't inept; the people marketing it are. Instead of hogging billboards and littering magazines with posters of a Barbied-up Nicole Kidman holding a finger to her mouth, perfuming away the presumed stink, somebody should be out selling screenwriter Paul Rudnick's withering jokes and the cast's killer performances.

Apparently, "The Stepford Wives" has been tested more than a sprinter headed to the Olympics, and parts have been reshot, dumped, and injected with Botox. So the finished product has a cobbled-together structure and mismatched, mood-swinging energy, and the narrative is usually nonsense. (The movie's only decently put-together sequence is a gorgeous and eerily balletic montage of women horny over their appliances in the opening credits.) Still, "The Stepford Wives" is nothing to be ashamed of. Has anyone at Paramount actually seen this movie? It's hilarious -- and on purpose, too. This is the first satisfying adult summer comedy set in New England to come out of Hollywood since "The Witches of Eastwick" in 1987.

Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, who leaves Manhattan after she's fired from her mega-powerful television executive job. The network wants nothing to do with her once a contestant (Mike White) on one of her upcoming matrimonial reality series ("I Can Do Better!") jealously kills his wife and her new lovers. Jobless and therefore useless, Joanna has a total "nervous collapse" and heads with her husband (Matthew Broderick) and two kids to the Connecticut town of Stepford, a vast, perfection-drenched gated community. There, the plan is for her to stop loving her career at the expense of her family and get her priorities straight. Naturally, the cheer and brightness conspire to drive her nuts all over again.

There's a line that splits Stepford in half. The schlumpy, nerdy men golf and wear khakis. The women all look like Jessica Simpson (tan, pointy, and blond) and do things like caddy in heels and offer effusively bland compliments. Joanna, who's pale, has an ugly brown bob, and seems 9 feet tall, is like an alien. She makes fast friends with best-selling writer and town Jew Bobbie Markowitz, whom Bette Midler plays with an acid snarl.

Soon, the two of them start running around town trying to find out what goes on at Stepford's men's club, which is run by the typically insinuating Christopher Walken and is where all the hubbies gather to smoke cigars and play BattleBots. They're also retooling their wives into busty mannequins they can operate with remote controls.

Rudnick, a seasoned wit and the author of the Kevin Kline coming-out farce "In & Out," turns a reupholstering queer eye on Bryan Forbes's 1975 movie, which tried to wring horror from Katharine Ross's straight face. The original's mystery was what the men were up to. This new version takes that for granted and explains why. It also uses the movie to send up the preposterousness of everything from white, middle-class privilege and urbanites' cripplingly uncool move outbound to the suburbs to wholesale misogyny: A husband inserts an ATM card into the mouth of his femme-bot wife and out spits cash -- ones, too!

Rudnick specializes in hurling poison darts. Here he throws armloads of them, and a surprising number hit the board. His Stepford is a sunny real-world fantasy where powerful, white-collar mommies go to die in a comic nightmare of housework, baking, and flattery. They're essentially deprogrammed of their ambition and softened from corporate mean girls into conciliatory homemakers who love grocery shopping, Christmas decorations, and floral prints.

Directed by Frank Oz with a mix of flatness and flair, the remake is still stuck with the original movie's impatient plotting. Bobbie (played by Paula Prentiss the first time around) is Stepfordized far too soon. But in a brilliant move, Rudnick throws in a gay couple, the irreverent half of which is played by the stage actor Roger Bart. He winds up snooping around with Kidman and Midler. Initially, pairing him and Midler seems redundant, but Midler plays happy and dumpy, leaving the brassiness to Bart.

The pair seem comfortable co-stealing scenes from their lanky costar. Kidman, though, is a trouper. In the early New York scenes, her performance works as a mockery of Faye Dunaway's heartlessness in "Network" and a sporty remix of Kidman's own work in "To Die For." Later, she's like a 1960-something Mia Farrow on growth hormones. Right now, Kidman is having a self-punishing moment in which she's seen doing a lot of manual labor. She farmed in "Cold Mountain" and slaved in "Dogville." Here, she polishes brass and churns out cupcakes. But she at least seems to enjoy getting icing on her hands.

Speaking of icing, the best thing in the movie is Glenn Close, who arrives as Walken's wife, Claire, a one-woman welcome wagon of clenched teeth, tight skin, and WASPy, country-club derangement. This is Close's battiest part since she played Sunny Von Bulow and Hamlet's mother Gertrude in the same year, and in the last reel of this picture, she only gets better.

The movies need her -- and Midler, for that matter -- but often don't know what to do with either of them, or with most grown-ups for that matter. If a studio can't figure out how to sell light, caustic entertainment about adults to adults, then maybe turning our loves into soulless robo-spouses is the least of our worries.

Chicago Sun-Times
Photo Scan: Sara the Divine Dutchie (Paramount)

'The Stepford Wives" depends for some of its effect on a plot secret that you already know, if you've been paying attention at any time since the original film version was released in 1975. If you don't know it, stay away from the trailer, which gives it away. It's an enticing premise, an opening for wicked feminist satire, but the 1975 movie tilted toward horror instead of comedy. Now here's a version that tilts the other way, and I like it a little better.

The experience is like a new production of a well-known play. The original suspense has evaporated, and you focus on the adaptation and acting. Here you can also focus on the new screenplay by Paul Rudnick, which is rich with zingers. Rudnick, having committed one of the worst screenplays of modern times ("Isn't She Great," the Jacqueline Susann story), redeems himself with barbed one-liners; when one of the community planners says he used to work for AOL, Joanna asks, "Is that why the women are so slow?"

Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna Eberhart, a high-powered TV executive who is fired after the victim of one of her reality shows goes on a shooting rampage. Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) resigns from the same network, where he worked under her, and moves with his wife and two children to the gated community of Stepford, Conn.

It's weird there. The women all seem to be sexy clones of Betty Crocker. Glenn Close is Claire Wellington, the real-estate agent, greeter and community cheerleader, and she gives Joanna the creeps (she's "flight attendant friendly"). Nobody in Stepford seems to work; they're so rich, they don't need to, and the men hang out at the Men's Association while the women attend Claire's exercise sessions. In Stepford, the women the women dress up and wear heels, even for aerobics (no sweaty gym shorts), and Claire leads them in pantomimes of domestic chores ("Let's all be washing machines!").

Walter loves it in Stepford. Joanna hates it. She bonds with Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), author of a best-selling memoir about her mother, I Love You, But Please Die. Her house is a pigpen. Every other house in Stepford is spotlessly clean, even though there seem to be no domestic servants; the wives cheerfully do the housework themselves. They also improve themselves by attending Claire's book club. A nice example of Rudnick's wit: When Joanna shares that she has finished volume two of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, Claire takes a beat, smiles bravely, and suggests they read Christmas Keepsakes, and discuss celebrating Jesus' birthday with yarn.

Christopher Walken is Claire's husband and seems to be running Stepford; it's the kind of creepy role that has Walken written all over it, and he stars in a Stepford promotional film that showcases another one of his unctuous explanations of the bizarre. A new touch this time: Stepford has a gay couple, and Roger (Roger Bart), the "wife," is flamboyant to begin with, until overnight, strangely, he becomes a serious-minded congressional candidate.

What's going on here? You probably know, but I can't tell you. When Ira Levin's original novel was published in 1972, feminism was newer, and his premise satirized the male desire for tame, sexy wives who did what they were told and never complained. Rudnick and director Frank Oz don't do anything radical with the original premise (although they add some post-1972 touches, like the Stepford-style ATM machine), but they choose comedy over horror, and it's a wise decision.

Kidman plays a character who's not a million miles away from her husband-killer in "To Die For" (1995), even though this time she's the victim. Bette Midler is defiantly subversive as the town misfit. And Walken is ... Walken.

The movie is surprisingly short, at 93 minutes including end titles (the 1975 film was 115 minutes long). Maybe it needs to be short. The secret is obvious fairly early. (A woman goes berserk and when Walter says she was probably just sick, Joanna says, "Walter, she was sparking!") It could probably work as a springboard for heavy-duty social satire, but that's not what audiences expect from this material, and Rudnick pushes about as far as he can without tearing the envelope.

Some movies are based on short stories, some on novels. "The Stepford Wives" is little more than an anecdote, and like all good storytellers, Oz and Rudnick don't meander on their way to the punchline.

New York Daily News
Wicked & witty 2nd 'Wives'
Photo Scan: Sara the Divine Dutchie (Paramount)
Friday, June 11th, 2004

THE STEPFORD WIVES With Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken. Director: Frank Oz (1:33). PG-13: Mature themes, language.

Given the state of her celebrity, it's not surprising to see "The Stepford Wives" referred to as the "new Nicole Kidman movie."

But, trust me, the star of this overachieving trifle is not Kidman, it's Paul Rudnick.

The New York playwright and screenwriter ("In & Out") has taken a pair of dated watermarks from the '70s - Ira Levin's horror novel and its faithful 1975 movie adaptation - and turned them into a broad, feverishly fey parody.

His story follows the general outline of the book, about a stressed couple who move to a small New England village populated with geeky men whose once-disagreeable wives now combine the chief attributes of Daisy Mae, Betty Crocker and Irma la Douce. Levin's novel was a reaction to the male hysteria prompted by the feminist movement begun in the '60s. Rudnick's script is a male fantasy out of Eisenhower's '50s.

Most men have adapted since throwing their borrowed copy of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" on the floor and stomping on it, which compelled Rudnick to imagine something even worse than women's equality - women's superiority.

The men of contemporary Stepford have had their vastly more accomplished wives tamed by implanting microchips in their brains. Where once was a proud CEO is now a Barbie doll with great hair and makeup, a passion for housework and breasts that can be inflated by remote control.

Into this model society, come fired TV network boss Joanna Eberhardt (Kidman) and Walter (Matthew Broderick), her milquetoast husband and former network underling.

Though Joanna is recovering from a nervous breakdown, her can-do instincts quickly kick in when she gets a gander at the creepy conformity of the other Stepford wives.

The first hour of the movie, in which Joanna and two other unprocessed Stepford wives gamely try to assess and assimilate into the new culture, is a riot.

Rudnick has written some of the year's sharpest comic dialogue for this threesome: Kidman, Bette Midler as a sassy author who doesn't believe in cleaning house between moves, and Roger Bart as the femme half of Stepford's first gay couple.

People familiar with Rudnick's Premiere magazine column, written under the nom de plume Libby Gelman-Waxner, will recognize every line of Roger's dialogue as his.

This movie is gay as an alternative St. Patrick's Day parade. I don't know if the jokes will work out of town, but New Yorkers will love them.

The second act, which deals with Walter's conversion by the men of Stepford and their guru (Christopher Walken), sags a bit.

But the movie bounces back, thanks to a spectacular bit of overacting by Glenn Close as the ultimate Stepford wife, and ends with an image of grotesquely beautiful symmetry.

Kidman is too big for this movie. Literally. She's too tall for Broderick, and her A-list stature suggests a film more substantial than it is.

She's really outplayed both by Midler, who is in rare form as the ugly duckling of Stepford, and Bart, who is hilarious as Rudnick's fashion- and class-conscious alter ego.

My So-Called Wife
The campy delights of The Stepford Wives.
By David Edelstein
Posted Thursday, June 10, 2004

This year's model

It's fitting that the remake of The Stepford Wives (Paramount) opens on the national day of mourning for Ronald Reagan, the political leader who made such hay out of fondly invoking the 1950s—before, he once said, we knew we had a race problem and all those other messy social ills. The Ira Levin novel and the subsequent 1975 movie were meant to satirize a patriarchy that would do anything to bring back the days before wives began to work, talk back, or, in '70s parlance, self-actualize. I'm not sure if that '50s never-never land existed (it was at least partly a construct of the government and entertainment industries). But the longing for it was real and powerful enough that feminists could take Levin's outlandish melodrama as a cautionary tale.

I've always been suspicious of Levin: There's a sadistic sexual component in his tales of female victimization that cancels out the feminist thrust and then some. But he was able to get under peoples' skin; and the original film, pedestrian as it was, became a touchstone. Suddenly you heard: "Oh, she's such a Stepford Wife …" Shamed, the so-called domestic goddess had to evolve, finally embracing as a role model the likes of Martha Stewart, a homemaker who could also be a corporate titan.

The remake is … how can I put this? A desecration? A travesty? Certainly, it's a slapdash sendup. The writer, Paul Rudnick, appears to have concluded that since 1974 we've had so many '50s parodies, horror movies, and even serious deconstructions like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002) that only a raving lunatic could long for the way we supposedly were. This Stepford Wives, directed by Frank Oz, is not just making fun of '50s nostalgia; it's making fun of making fun of '50s nostalgia. It says you can't even take those fantasies seriously enough to critique anymore.

Word of the movie's terribleness began to filter out months ago, and different endings were reportedly shot and tested. The one that's there now is from hunger: It's a miracle that the actors don't turn to the camera and roll their eyes or make little shadow bunnies. Paramount Pictures has not widely screened it for critics: It took considerable ingenuity for me even to get into a preview. And I imagine that audiences who show up this weekend expecting a genuine thriller with horror overtones will want to throw things at the screen, or maybe tar and feather the projectionist.

All of that being the case, I had a fabulous time. Well, I did once I accepted that it was a campfest—a great Provincetown drag show of The Stepford Wives.

Nicole Kidman plays the heroine, Joanna Eberhart, a celebrated women's TV network president who makes reality shows in which men are gleefully emasculated. When one participant—played by actor/screenwriter Mike White—flips out and shoots at her at an affiliates' conference, this destroyer of the nuclear family gets the boot. After her nervous breakdown, Joanna's husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick, with a hunched posture that virtually eliminates his neck), buys a house in Stepford, Conn. Walter has been a vice-president under his powerhouse spouse and seems to relish the opportunity finally to take charge—to be the man of the family.

You know what Joanna finds: a '50s Disneyland of suburban affluence in which dumpy men are married to women who dress and act like '50s garden-party ladies or flight attendants. There's also—and this is a subversive twist—a gay couple! Yes, the men of Stepford have no problem sympathizing with the gay "husband's" inability to control his queeny "wife." The non-robotic people—Kidman's Joanna, Bette Midler as the defiantly slobby Jewish author Bobbi Markowitz, and Roger Bart as Roger Bannister, a screamingly gay architect—form a club and dish about a Stepford wife (played by singer Faith Hill) who appeared to be short-circuiting at a square dance.

These scenes are a scream—and I don't even like camp, which long ago lost its gay bite and merged with pothead '80s irony. It helps that the actors have such headlong energy. Kidman looks great with a dark bob, and she has evolved into a fearless comedian: Watch her receive the news of her firing and maintain her demented smiling poise while accelerating past a gantlet of well-wishers, on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Midler is delicious; Bart (a Broadway stalwart new to movies) has killer one-liners and zings them into the stratosphere; Glenn Close stops the show as the town's electrifyingly chirpy den mother; and, as her icily affable husband, Christopher Walken is in a Method-zombie league of his own.

Rudnick is a funny writer—one of the funniest there is—but it must be said that he's too comfy in his camp little universe: His targets are obvious, and real emotion seems beyond his reach, at least in this mode. There are creepy moments all through The Stepford Wives, but apart from the scene in which Roger Bannister recognizes his terrible destiny, nothing eats into your mind. And don't expect logic—dramatic, melodramatic, romantic, or science-fictional—in the desperate finale. In retrospect, almost nothing in the movie makes sense.

In truth, even its central conceit is dated and unconvincing: These smiling dolls with long legs and (inflatable) breasts who keep perfect houses and cook perfect meals and scream with pleasure in the sack: What man would want that??? OK, maybe for a weekend … 10 days at the outside…

Every third day?

Contra Costa Times
'Stepford' would be less blah with more Bette, Bart

"The Stepford Wives" reportedly had a tough route to theaters, requiring reshoots very late in production. You can see signs of that trouble poking through in places, particularly in the awkward performances of its leading lady, Nicole Kidman, and her co-star, Matthew Broderick, as well as in an ending that feels as though it's been audience tested to death.

But there's enough snappy comedy to keep this remake of the 1975 original afloat, thanks largely to the triple talent of three supporting actors: Bette Midler, Glenn Close and the far less famous but very funny Roger Bart.

Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a cutthroat Manhattan television executive who loses her job after a cruel reality show she masterminded causes a contestant to snap and go on a shooting spree. The show is a trial of marital vows called "I Can Do Better," which could have played as parody two years ago, but now simply sounds like something from the Fox fall schedule. A chastened Joanna and her neglected husband, Walter (Broderick), a lesser luminary in the world of television, retreat to the picture-perfect Connecticut community of Stepford to try to get their lives and their marriage back on track.

The 1975 version of "The Stepford Wives," adapted from a novel by Ira Levin and starring Katharine Ross as a newcomer to Stepford who was also named Joanna Eberhart, is a curious cultural icon. Despite having been a critical bust, it lingers today in the public consciousness to the point where even those who haven't seen it are likely to know that it involves husbands turning their wives into glamorous, subservient robots.

Ditto for this version, directed by Frank Oz from a screenplay by Paul Rudnick (who previously teamed with Oz on "In & Out") and featuring a pastel-clad Faith Hill as a modern-day Stepford wife with a bustline that expands to suit her husband's fancy. It doesn't take long for Walter, a dweeby guy who has long resented the castrating effects of Joanna's success ("I got to hold your purse," he seethes), to start seeing the benefits of the Stepford way.

The head robot in modern-day Stepford is real estate agent Claire (Glenn Close), who welcomes Joanna, Walter and their two children to Stepford in a floral print dress and straw purse straight out of the 1950s. Claire is married to Mike (Christopher Walken), head of the ominous Stepford Men's Club. Close, managing to look imperious even while playing someone under remote control, gives the movie its first real kick of humor. "Isn't she sassy?" Claire coos in response to a rude remark from Joanna and Walter's ultra-urban daughter. Then as her eyebrows arch upward and her intonation downward, she adds, "And a little sad."

What's so funny about that line? On the page, not much. But on the screen, the mixture of Close's delivery and the sense that she's here to have fun makes it work. Midler and Bart, playing two other recent transplants to Stepford, a best-selling writer and a gay architect, respectively, have the same energy. Midler gets laughs just for bustling around being herself, while Bart hams it up as a witty Versace-clad queen whose partner wishes he were more traditional. Prowling around the robot factory, aka the Stepford Men's Club, with a flashlight, Bart stops at the door into a darkened room and purrs "I feel like Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Midlife Crisis." We love him.

We love Kidman, too, although not so much here. She's a fantastic actress, and comedy is definitely not out of her range, as fans of "To Die For" are well aware. But she looks vaguely uncomfortable and insecure throughout "The Stepford Wives," as if she's pretty sure she should be somewhere else, working on acquiring her next Oscar. Meanwhile, Broderick can't get around the fact that the script can't decide what it wants to do with Walter. Broderick plays the role with a poker face, and in the end, we still don't know what to think of him. The movie keeps trying to make us root for the well-being of Joanna and Walter's marriage, but we could care less about domestic bliss. What we want is more Bette, a lot more Roger and another dash of Glenn.

Without giving anything away, a word on the ending: It's caught midway between perky and dark. You get the sense that Oz and Rudnick were told their comedy was too black for test audiences and came back with something softer, loaded with exposition for the dafter members of the audience and smelling of an apology for being too edgy. A chortle-inducing image of Walken and Close should have sufficed as a closer, but instead, Oz cuts to that great buzz kill of contemporary movies, the faux interview with Larry King, to tidy up all remaining loose ends. Now that's something worth apologizing for.

What if a new film looked just like a familiar one but something seemed dreadfully amiss?
Say hello to 'The Stepford Wives.'
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle Movie Critic
Friday, June 11, 2004

The Stepford Wives: Satire. Starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken. Directed by Frank Oz. (PG-13. 90 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)

There are movies that have things seriously off about them, that are conceptually self-defeating, that entangle the filmmakers like flies in a spider's web and that are simply unfixable and shouldn't have been made. "The Stepford Wives," the remake of the 1975 cult classic, is a movie in that category, but of its kind, it's not that bad. Before it degenerates into a complete mess, it's an entertaining mess, and something about its willingness to please maintains the audience's goodwill throughout.
It stars Nicole Kidman, in the role originally played by Katharine Ross, as a woman who moves with her husband to the upscale community of Stepford, Conn., and notices something odd about the women. They act like, well, Stepford wives! They're placid, have glazed demeanors, perfect homes and gentle expressions, and they wait on their husbands hand and foot. Obviously, something is wrong here.

In the years since Ira Levin's novel was adapted to the screen, "The Stepford Wives" -- not the movie, but the concept -- has become a part of American culture, a reference point in a million jokes. To redo the film as a period piece would have been too campy. Yet moving the film to modern times proves dicey as well.

This time Joanna (Kidman) is a high-powered TV executive who has just been fired. In the firing scene, director Frank Oz keeps the camera right on Kidman as she registers the unthinkable. It's beautiful comic acting and reminds audiences that Kidman, despite her porcelain beauty, is a first-rate farceur.

But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Kidman is not right for the role. Just to play a normal-looking woman, Kidman has to be coiffed in a severe, dark wig. To make her look anything less than stunning, she practically needs to be wearing a costume. Knowing what Kidman really looks like, and knowing the Stepford beauty aesthetic, we can't help thinking that becoming a Stepford wife might be a reasonable course for Joanna, or at least her natural destiny.

Where the movie really wanted to go -- into uproarious comedy -- would have been better supported by Bette Midler in the Kidman part. As it stands, she plays Joanna's friend, Bobbie, the author of self-help books, including one about her mother: "I Love You but Please Die!" But she's underutilized.

Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick establish a broad comic tone in the opening scenes, but it comes back to bite them, setting a levelthey can't maintain and leaving them with no room to shift into a more serious or eerie mode, as the story demands. Satire is difficult, but at least a satire has the advantage of being grounded in truth. This new "Wives" is essentially a satire of a satire; thus it's cut off from any observed reality or anything like a point of view. It can only be sustained by one-liners.

That the film stays afloat as long as it does is thanks to some hard paddling by the actors, who seem to have been directed to push the material, and by Rudnick, who comes up with witty lines and comic juxtapositions, such as a gay Stepford husband (Roger Bart). But he can't make us laugh hard enough not to notice that the transplant is being rejected, namely that of a 30-year- old satire into a 2004 world.

If in 1975, the dark satire of "The Stepford Wives" had teeth, it's because its message rang true: Many men would have been ecstatic to be married to a sexually willing robot. But in 2004, there are just not enough men like this to make the movie work, even as an exaggeration. Can anyone look at the intelligent, open face of Matthew Broderick, who plays Kidman's husband, and believe,even for a second, that he'd prefer a placid zombie to a complicated woman? Could anyone believe he'd even consider it? It's not possible. We've moved on.

All Rudnick can do is make fun of the material, but that means pulling back and making it safe. It means abandoning all traces of mystery and menace. It means that Christopher Walken, who might have been genuinely creepy as the leader of the town's men, is stuck with a character whose edges are softened. And Glenn Close, as his wife and partner in crime, is just a fluttery eccentric. By the middle, the movie has exhausted its effectiveness as an in- joke and begins to seem like a pointless exercise. This sense is enhanced when we realize that the movie has even altered the very nature of the wives themselves, further tilting things in a less sinister direction.

By the last half hour, there's nothing to be done, but no one gives up. The cast gamely keeps delivering the one-liners, though the movie is in a death spiral.

FILM REVIEW: Kidman, costars turn tragedy into farce in 'The Stepford Wives'
University Wire; 6/16/2004; Niels Strandskov
University Wire

(Minnesota Daily) (U-WIRE) MINNEAPOLIS -- The original 1975 screen version of "The Stepford Wives" owed much of its creepiness to Enrique Bravo and Owen Roizman's brilliant cinematography. The green and pleasant avenues of suburban Connecticut always look a little out of focus, as though they were obscured by a light fog.

Unfortunately, in this year's remake, Rob Hahn shoots interiors and exteriors alike in crisp, vivid colors with sun-drenched lawns balancing brightly sparkling dream kitchens.

Like many of its contemporaries in the world of 1970s Hollywood film, "The Stepford Wives" drew its power from the seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of bitterness and cynicism that suffused the national consciousness. After Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations and embargoes, the movie-watching public was ever-primed for more graphic evidence of the world's essential wickedness.

The idea that upper-middle class men might replace their wives with chipper fembots could hardly have appeared implausible. However, there still existed at that time, despite the national "malaise" that President Jimmy Carter identified, a capacity for disgust. The washed-out palette of the original "Stepford Wives" tends to put some distance between the viewer and the all-too-believable terror onscreen.

In the remake, director Frank Oz begins by assuring us that we are far too jaded from years of reality TV and similar media product to ever be really disgusted again. Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman) is a powerful and somewhat crass network executive who finds herself jobless and mentally adrift after a disgruntled reality TV victim crashes her fall line-up presentation.

Her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick) convinces her that a move out of Manhattan would be good for her health. Of course, they wind up in Stepford, where Joanna meets kindred neurotic urbanite spirits Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). This trio of rebels in paradise suspect that town power-couple Claire and Mike Wellington (Glenn Close and Christopher Walken) are up to no good.

While the remake imagines this predicament as a ready source of biting satire, there's rarely a sense that anything horrible is going on. For instance, Bart's character, the more flamboyant half of the only gay couple in Stepford, is shown to be just as vulnerable as any of the wives. But his stereotypical "Queer Eye" tittering prevents both satire and horror from ever fully gelling around the three misfits. The original version's ability to make our skin crawl depended on characters that might have been anyone we knew, and the nauseating sense of violation attached to the thought of replacing a woman with a robot merely for convenience sake.

If the villains in the new version of "The Stepford Wives" have a flaw, it's merely their bad taste in housedresses. The movie leaves no room for its audience to feel angry or violated. On the contrary, the film's upbeat look and pat ending seem designed not to provoke the audience out of its complacency, but rather to mire us further in our predicament, with a little sarcasm thrown in to lighten the tone. Like the good little robots we've all become, we'll file out of the theater and back to our Stepford-like existences, unchallenged, complacent and no wiser.

Newsweek; 6/21/2004; Gordon, Devin
Byline: Cathleen McGuigan, Devin Gordon
The Stepford Wives
Directed by Frank Oz

Maybe I've been robotized, but I laughed my way through this uneven comic remake of the 1975 thriller about a leafy suburb where the women are suspiciously compliant Barbie dolls. Sure, the film is pretty clunky, but the sendup of the world of McMansions and SUVs and the one-line zingers from screenwriter Paul Rudnick help make up for that. Glenn Close, Bette Midler and Roger Bart (who plays one half of a gay couple slated for Stepfordizing) are hilarious, and even Nicole Kidman flashes comedic gifts not seen since "To Die For."

As Bad as They Say?
The Stepford Wives and The Terminal have been tainted with the smell of turkey. Do they deserve it?
Time; 6/21/2004; Corliss, Richard
Byline: Richard Corliss

It used to be said that Hollywood was the art of the deal. Now Hollywood is the biz of the buzz. Buzz is the murmur that precedes a film's release; it usually starts in a studio's publicity department. But good buzz can turn bad when outsiders see the film and start dishing. (The outsiders are almost never critics. We've been out of the power equation for ages.) Tabloid headlines play a role too. When the stars are Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez and the film is Gigli, the anticipatory mood can quickly sour from must-see to buzz-saw.

Bad buzz has recently hit the summer's big grownup drama, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, and the big grownup comedy, The Stepford Wives. Stepford endured lots of rewriting, reshooting and trimming to a terse 93 min. In other words, the film--a remake of the 1975 thriller about "perfect" suburban women who turn out to be robots--underwent the same radical makeover, the same behavioral modification, as the wives of Stepford. And with the same goal: to make it prettier and more pleasing. As for the Spielberg film, in early June the Internet cinephile site Ain't It Cool News blared the headline IS THE TERMINAL RESHOOTING ITS ENDING RIGHT NOW?! and noted that some industry screenings had been canceled.

There would seem to be no downside to a film directed by Mr. All-Time Box Office Champ and starring Tom Hanks, who has often turned iffy projects (like Forrest Gump) into smash hits. The 10 films Hanks starred in before this year each grossed more than $100 million at the North American wickets. He faltered only with this spring's The Ladykillers, and that one doesn't count. (Making a film with indie icons like the Coen brothers--or with Charlie Kaufman, as Jim Carrey did for the similarly low-grossing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--is considered image-polishing pro bono work for a big star, like an off-Broadway stint or a benefit concert.)

In The Terminal, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) arrives at a New York City airport on a flight from his native land, Krakozhia. The country has just suffered a coup, and until the U.S. recognizes a legitimate regime, he can't go into the city or back home. (It's not explained why many others on his flight wouldn't be in the same predicament.) So Viktor is under airport arrest; to find food, work, a place to sleep and a woman to love, he must rely on his own resources. Which are considerable. This is, after all, a Spielberg movie (Viktor is E.T., the sweet alien who wants to fulfill his mission and go home) and a Hanks film (Viktor is the castaway, one man in a strange environment, making do with what's available).

The surprise about The Terminal is not that it got bad buzz but that it's a bad film. Several bad films, actually. First it's a comedy of desperation, with lots of sight gags (a machine that spits quarters in Viktor's face, too many people slipping on a wet floor) in the style of French comic actor-director Jacques Tati. Then it's a love story, as Viktor romances a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Finally the uplifting and heart tugging kick in. The Terminal is Spielberg's shortest feature since the first Jurassic Park, yet it drags, plods, piling one lifeless situation atop another. For all the effort and good intentions, the movie is in-terminal-ble.

In the case of Buzz v. Stepford, yes, the movie is a little messy. But that's forgivable, since it has a wonderfully wounding malice directed at both the Stepford, Conn., contingent of Energizer Bunny wives and the New Yorkers who have just moved in. Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), a just-fired network boss, wears black to the town's July 4 picnic. "Only high-powered castrating Manhattan bitches wear black," she is told. "Is that what you wanted to be?" Her demure reply: "Ever since I was a little girl."

Credit the bitchy wit to screenwriter Paul Rudnick, the knowing tone to director Frank Oz and the cluttered ending to the focus groups. The snazzy cast--including Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and, as the makeover masterminds who have "top-secret contracts with the Pentagon, Apple and Mattel," Glenn Close and Christopher Walken--really sinks its fangs into Rudnick's poisoned apple.

By the time you read this, The Stepford Wives may have been deemed a box-office failure. But that shouldn't matter to people who want a film full of smart laughs. Maybe big giggles can drown out bad buzz.
February 9, 2006

Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Kadee Strickland

Can the Gender Wars still be raging? Apparently so. But their generals, not to mention the battles they fight, don’t seem to have nearly the same bite as they used to. I mean, is it really a shock nowadays to see a female network TV executive shilling misanthropic, sexed-up reality shows at an affiliates convention? Please. With her slicked back brown ’do and steely tenacity, Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) looks and acts every bit the shark that she should – and why not? Faye Dunaway blazed that trail almost thirty years ago in "Network". You haven’t really come a long way, baby.

Unlike the naturalistic, soft-focused horror portrayed in the original film, Oz has recast Ira Levin’s cautionary tale "The Stepford Wives" as a light-hearted comic satire, a gently stinging backlash to the backlash. It makes sense. Like the coming-out romp "In and Out", the “controversial” previous collaboration of Oz and Rudnick, this makes you wonder why it’s taken so long to finally spread the word. Guess what? Real women and men don’t fit neatly into suffocating, gender-stereotyped boxes. Ah, Hollywood. Always so dependably behind the cultural curve.

So it seems, at first glance, that the latest screen incarnation of Stepford tries to be edgy and fails. And to an extent, it does. But what director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick get right is the new rationale for turning flesh-and-blood beings into brain-dead, subservient sex kittens: These women are better then their men at everything, and that freaks the men out.

Stepford opens as Joanna is forced into early retirement by a homicidal nut (Mike White) whose wife left him in the “I Can Do Better” reality pilot. (“Let’s kill all the women!” he yells, whipping out a gun in front of 2,000 conventioneers. Not funny.) He doesn’t actually hurt anybody, but the bad publicity makes Joanna a necessary fall guy. Her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), a vice president at the same network, quits his job in protest, and the couple decides to move out of Manhattan with their two children to try and patch up Joanna’s sanity and their failing marriage.

They snap up a ridiculously palatial estate in the gated community of Stepford, Connecticut, which seems to contain nothing but ridiculously palatial estates. Walter immediately falls in love with the town – its manicured lawns, gorgeous, impeccably polite women, and stately men’s club – but Joanna is suspicious. (Oz lays the Stepford shtick on so early and so strong, in fact, it’s almost impossible to believe that Joanna would have stuck around past the first weekend.) The ordinarily meek Walter starts to get bossy. He even orders her to give up her city wardrobe of basic black. “Only high-powered, castrating New York career bitches wear black. Is that what you want to be?” he asks. “Ever since I was a little girl,” she purrs guilelessly.

Thankfully for Joanna, she’s not the only recent Manhattan transplant. She immediately bonds with two other Stepford misfits who smell a rat: nebbishy author Bobbie Markowitz (she’s just like Fran Lebowitz, only…Bette Midler!) and tres fey architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). Both Bobbie and Roger embrace their inner clichés – she’s an overweight, hippie slob who hates men, he’s a Dolce and Gabbana-loving queen – but their sense of selves and humor keep them from becoming caricatures. (This is one of the wonderful ironies of the movie: the stereotypical characters are the ones with the humanity.) It doesn’t take long for the three of them to stumble on the evil plot of town Svengali Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) to turn the women into robotic cyborgs with will-sapping brain implants. But for Bobbie and Roger (Stepford’s first he-wife), the realization comes too late. Joanna is left to fend for herself in what could only be described as a gothic sanatorium surrounded by a white picket electrified fence.

“While you were trying to become men, we became gods,” Wellington tells Joanna during the movie’s shadowy climax. I won’t give away the final irony, but suffice it to say even gods sometimes get their strings pulled. This Stepford Wives isn’t nearly as scary as the 1975 version in the thriller/horror genre sense. But it is scary in a whole different way. You get the feeling that there are plenty of “guys’ guys” out there who agree with Wellington’s sentiments. Sadly, it probably takes something as unsubtle as this production to get through to that kind of mind.

Then again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with broad – these broads especially. Looking like Glinda the Good Witch assaulted by a child’s Easter basket, Glenn Close throws herself body and soul into her role as Wellington’s doting wife Claire, and it’s nice to see the ordinarily grace-incarnate Kidman thrust into the role of town schlub (although, next to Midler, she could easily still pass for Moulin Rouge’s Satine). Broderick, however, suffers by comparison to any of them. He seems to have less and less to offer with every movie; the beadier his eyes get and the paunchier his middle, the more Ferris Bueller seems so depressingly middle age – body and soul. If you ask me, Joanna Eberhart could do better.