Stepford Wives (2004): Crass Remake of 1975 Cult Classic, Starring Nicole Kidman

There’s more depth in Paul Rudnick’s monthly column “If You Ask Me” in Premiere magazine (using the pen name Libby Gelman-Waxner) than in his entire script for The Stepford Wives, a crass and inferior remake of the 1975 classic.

As was evident in his earlier scripts, like In & Out, Rudnick doesn’t believe in plot, point of view, character development, or narrative logic–all those “old-fashioned” qualities upon which good movies are based. He can only write campy comedies with a gay sensibility that might have entertained audiences a decade or two ago, but today fails to hit the mark.

For months, rumors have been flying about the troubled production, about director Frank Oz’s clashes with his cast, about re-shoots and re-edits. Judging by what’s on screen, The Stepford Wives is neither a writer’s nor a director’s film. It’s a mishmash of a movie, one that can’t decide about its sexual politics or its heart. With a tacked-on ending, the movie doesn’t work as a tale of male revenge or female paranoia.

In the production notes, the movie is described as “a subversive and comic look at rampant consumerism and the quest for perfection,” a theme that deviates from Ira Levin’s novel, upon which the script is loosely based. If this is the case, Rudnick could have gone much farther with his conceit about how technology is used to perfect flawed humanity.

In this saga, Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, the president of a fictitious network (EBS), riding high on the ratings of her latest reality show, “I Can Do Better.” In her arrogant opening speech, Joanna comes across as a more monstrous exec than Faye Dunaway was in “Network”. When a contestant takes the show’s message seriously and wreaks havoc, Joanna is fired from her job. After suffering a nervous breakdown, she’s packed up by her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and moved to the blandly homogenous community of Stepford, Connecticut.

The film’s main problem is that there’s no buildup of suspense, no character-development. Joanna immediately notes that the women are too subservient, functioning as sexual slaves and domestic robots to their nerdy-looking husbands.

Structurally, the new version is a mess. The film consists of oddly matched scenes, each boasting a different tone, failing to congeal into a coherent movie. In one scene, Joanna and Walter argue and she threatens to leave; in the next, they make up and declare love.

As there’s no chemistry between the Joanna and Walter, or the actors who play them, it’s never clear what has held the marriage together, or why Joanna simply doesn’t leave Walter. Instead, Joanna takes refuge from the sanitized Stepford world with a writer named Bobby (Bette Midler in the Paula Prentiss’s role) and a gay architect (Roger Bart), both of whom are initially at odds with their companions.

In the original film, Katharine Ross’s Joanna pursued interest in photography but she was not a career woman. Influenced by the women’s liberation movement, she’s appalled by the submissiveness of the wives and attempts to organize consciousness-raising sessions.

According to Joanna’s logic, since none of these housewives works, they should be boozy, adulterous, or at least bored. But, instead, they all look happy and more excited to talk about their homes than anything else.

The men in town have devised a plan to transform their wives into emotionless automatons that lack individual personality, performing their marital and domestic duties perfectly. There was an intriguing ambiguity to the 1975 film right up to the end. The last image depicted a group of robot-like women wandering around a huge supermarket filling their carts with food. Seen in an alarming close-up, Joanna is shopping too. Has she become one of “them”

The original “Stepford Wives” was based on the same premise as the classic 1956 sci-fi Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with one difference: In Stepford, only the women are turned into pods. Like Invasion’s protagonist Doc Miles, Joanna tries to warn her female peers and open their eyes, but unlike Miles, who succeeds in persuading the authorities that something is wrong, at the end of Stepford Wives, Joanna is at the supermarket with the other women.

The earlier film mixed elements of suspense, horror, and social satire, but it let the audience decide what aspects to take from it. While it was clear that the men’s actions represented an ideological backlash against women’s progress, there was also a note of ambiguity and ridicule. The story implied that the programmed women had the upper hand since they performed sexually with all the “desirable” gestures under pressure from men. The film made men fee guilty about the way they treated women, but it also served as cautionary tale for “liberated” and “independent” women.

All of these ideas are gone from the new version, which trades in suspense for broad comedy. The (still-creepy) idea of troll-like men possessing trophy wives is exploited for sheer laughs. Since the original film bathed in feminist paranoia (a phenomenon of the 1970s), there needed to be an update, a new spin. The novelty in Rudnick’s script–Joanna is brighter and more successful than her husband–but the satire would have been more stinging if it had developed its audacious premise that the men have essentially lost the battle and women have the upper hand.

The other, minor Rudnick novelty is the notion that the new Stepford men are more open-minded, accepting a gay couple into their midst as long as they play by the rules.

Another irony is lost. In the original, the men were under the leadership of a scientific mastermind, Dale (nicknamed Diz because he worked at Disneyland). Diz was the only suave and attractive man in Stepford, but he was single. In the new film, the leadership is assumed by a happily married couple.

The original film had a point of view, telling the story from the perspective of Joanna, the threatened wife who made the audience feel the horror of suburban conformism and anonymity. But none of this film’s women, not even Bette Midler’s Bobby, have a distinctive personality for the audience to care about them.

For the first reel or so, Stepford Wives benefits from the viewers’ good will and patience, and Rudnick’s periodically nasty dialogue and pop-culture references make the movie more watchable. Occasionally, he shows his mastery of the one-liners. Joanna’s urban black-on-black wardrobe, which stands in sharp contrast to the sunny palette of the other women, elicits Walter’s quip, “it screams castrating Manhattan career bitch.”

Overall, though, the new film substitutes special effects for real scare or humor. The film’s tone changes from scene to scene, and the story gets increasingly sillier and cruder. It’s always dangerous sign when nothing in a film matches its clever opening credits, which depict idealized female images of the past. It’s also risky for a film to have appliances that are more sophisticated than the humans who use them.

Kidman can’t do much with her incongruent role, and Broderick comes across as a lame cartoonish husband.

The supporting actors breathe some life into their roles, particularly Christopher Walken, with his off-kilter presence, and Bette Midler, who has some great bitchy asides in the first act.

The production’s physical details are impressive, especially Ann Roth’s life-size Barbie costumes, and Jackson De Gova’s design, which makes Stepford look like a Disney-planned community with huge identical SUVs parked on identical ultra-cleaned streets.