Oy, Robot: The Steford Wives
By Fernando F. Croce

I steered away from all the "troubled-production" gossip surrounding the new remake of The Stepford Wives as to not let it influence my views on the movie itself. Turns out I didn't need to, since I could feel it sinking even before the opening credits were up -- candy-colored stock footage of Eisenhower-era frozen-haired, beaming hausfraus dotting over spotless kitchens and manly husbands. The film takes place today, but right away the filmmakers tip off their laziness in conveying conformity. Never mind Norman Mailer or Bigger Than Life, Rosa Parks or Charles Bukowski, Elvis Presley or The Searchers -- to derisive hipsters everywhere, the 1950s can always be satisfactorily summed up as one long episode of Leave It to Beaver.

Among these hipsters is Paul Rudnick, who wrote the screenplay for the film and evokes the spirit of that decade as the great, dirty male wet-dream and the ultimate horror for the contemporary woman and gay man. To recount the plot seems almost unnecessary, since the very title of the film has become an immediately recognizable (if frequently misused) cultural signifier. Nicole Kidman, probably hoping for a lark after enduring Von Trier's sadism in Dogville, plays a high-powered TV network executive who gets the ax after a victim of her hateful reality shows goes on a rampage. To recover from a breakdown, she leaves Manhattan with her meek husband (Matthew Broderick) to a luxurious, secluded Connecticut suburb.

Greeted by Glenn Close's unhealthily smiling, sundress-decked mother hen, Kidman grows increasingly suspicious of the airbrushed perfection of the locale, which extends to the housewives -- tall, blonde, docile, unquestioningly servile and Prozac-cheery, all apparently out of a mold for Great America greeters. Her only allies are Bette Midler as a schlumpfy Jew and Roger Bart as a gay spouse in the FAB-ulous tradition, both of whom get most of Rudnick's facile zingers ("What the country needs is highlights"). The three smell conspiracy in paradise and, since the menfolk (including such studly specimens as Jon Lovitz) are presided over by vintage weirdo Christopher Walken, it's no spoiler to say they're right.

The idea was already old when Ira Levin wrote the 1972 bestseller on which the movie (or, rather, the 1975 movie version directed by Bryan Forbes) is based, but the original had the advantage of clinching zeitgeist. By the mid-'70s, as the feminist movement gained weight, the notion of a backlash borne out of male fear and insecurity (and cloaked under the ideals of all-American "perfection") gave Levin's static sci-fi Gothic some topical chilliness. So now we get the remake, which plays like a car crash between Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Water's Hairspray, without the former's visionary anxiety and the latter's all-embracing compassion. What the movie needed was a strong viewpoint (not to mention a fierce style) to bridge the decades between the then and the now.

Instead, we get the Chronicles of Rudnick -- facetious Oscar-night patter, poison darts hurled at such timely targets as square-dancing, blonde airheads and (yawn) AOL. After In and Out, Isn't She Great and his Premiere columns, Rudnick has found his niche in the kind of screaming camp that declaws any potentially dangerous or subversive message. Dealing with an anti-female empowerment cautionary fable, he leeches the horror out of zombified fembots to concentrate on piledriver slapstick effects and snarky one-liners. Director Frank Oz, whose comedies are usually more generous, does little with all these Miss Piggies other than complementing Rudnick's smugness, pouring thick layers of antsy, faux-Burton artificiality. Unbearable.

Flaws aside, there's still a question that haunts every remake: Was it needed? Most will automatically answer "no," because times have allegedly changed and today any film (even an ostensible satire) dealing with the dangers of male oppression is just beating a dead unicorn. Sorry for the discord, but having women in judicial robes yelling at people on daytime TV doesn't necessarily make us a more liberated society. Sexism may be less obvious, but it would be delusional to see a clear break between today and the conditions around the birth of feminism, particularly when it comes to highly visible, powerful women (vide the palm-rubbing delight authorities took in bringing Martha Stewart down less for her corporate implications than for her sex).

With its relentless scampering about and witless visuals, The Stepford Wives is a nightmarish time at the movies. It is also more damaging than that, unfortunately, because it carelessly reinforces cultural fallacies about the nature and force of sexism (especially in the insulting, you-wish finale). Women's fight against oppression has, of course, been the subject of countless works of art, from Medea to The Passion of Joan of Arc to Kill Bill. Screechy camp, however, is just about the least subversive idiom imaginable. By deliberately aiming low and grabbing at mindless guffaws, the movie ends up as noxious as Stepford's nefarious plot to turn back the social-sexual clock.

Reviewed June 15, 2004.

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