You may have read stories in the press about how The Stepford Wives was a troubled set. Perhaps you heard that filming was supposed to take three months but ended up taking eight. Or perhaps you heard that producer Scott Rudin got so fed up that he essentially abandoned the project. You might even have heard that some members of the cast got into screaming matches with director Frank Oz over how the ending should be filmed. I normally wouldn’t even mention this kind of thing because a troubled set does not automatically a bad movie make. (If you don’t believe me, consider Apocalypse Now, which had the most troubled set in film history.) I mention it here only because so much has been written about The Stepford Wives and now it is time to put that all aside and judge the film on its merits. There’s always a possibility of bad publicity driving the public away, which would be a shame in this case. Whatever behind-the-scenes problems there were are not apparent on the screen, and enough things work to make the film worthwhile.
In this satirical remake of the 1975 thriller (based on Ira Levin’s novel), Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhard, a TV executive who loses her job after a reality show she conceived goes awry. Depressed and frustrated, Joanna and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) leave New York and move to the idyllic town of Stepford, Connecticut. On the surface, the place seems like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. However, it doesn’t take long before Joanna and Walter notice some strange things. For starters, the men all hang out in a super-secret “Men’s Association” building. Their wives are all strikingly similar, with long flowing hair and a penchant for dressing like June Cleaver. And they all worship their husbands obsessively, showing obedience and compliance at all times.
Joanna is immediately skeptical about the women, especially Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), who seems to be the leader. She is not the only one with questions. Local author Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and gay neighbor Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) also suspect something weird is going on. They begin to investigate after noticing one of the wives, Sarah Sunderson (Faith Hill), having some sort of behavioral malfunction. Meanwhile, Walter befriends Claire’s husband Mike (Christopher Walken), who may be the key to the town’s mystery. Everything culminates with a revelation which confirms that all is not right in Stepford.
Most of you probably already know the secret of this film, but for those of you who may not, I’ll stop right here. What I can say is that transferring the story’s premise from horror to satire was a gutsy move, but one that paid off. What was originally conceived as a thriller about the dangers of conformity is now a spoof of gender roles. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out) is a master of the witty zinger, and he fills the screenplay with sharply funny lines of dialogue that make the transformation mostly successful.
A first-rate cast is also a bonus. Nicole Kidman is very good doing comedy, which she doesn’t do a lot of. She is backed up by the great Christopher Walken (who, let’s face it, is worth watching in anything). Walken is the perfect choice to play Mike Wellington because – well, he’s always effective playing someone who seems capable of organizing a nefarious scheme. Even Bette Midler, who’s normally like nails on a blackboard for me, gets laughs as the abrasive Bobbie. Country star Faith Hill wisely makes her movie debut in a supporting role where she can make a good impression without having to carry the whole picture.
If the problems that plagued the shooting of The Stepford Wives can be found anywhere, it’s in the fact that the movie could potentially have been a first-rate comedy rather than just being the enjoyably amusing time-killer that it is. Somehow, with this cast, this writer, and this director, you could reasonably have expected real magic. Many things here are good, but not much is exceptional. In this day and age of superficial crap like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan,” there is much room to comedically annihilate the concept of “perfection” in women. The ending, which was allegedly the main source of production problems, is adequate but doesn’t go as far as it should.
I’ll tell you what I really liked about the picture, though. I didn’t realize it right away but there’s a very subversive message buried within the plot. If you read between the lines, The Stepford Wives suggests that many men, even the good ones, are so insecure about strong, successful women that they’d gladly go back to a time when the ladies were subservient to the males. They would be willing to sell out their wives, so to speak. I personally don’t feel that way, but I know some men who would jump at the chance to do what the men of Stepford do to their wives in this movie. It’s a provocative point – one that gives the film a naughty playfulness. It’s true that women these days are running companies, making more money than their husbands, and having successful careers. If there were a way to essentially erase women’s’ liberation, would the men folk agree to it? This film says the answer is “maybe.”
It’s this intriguing idea that pulled me into the film. Again, the final product could have attacked the ramifications of that idea with a harder edge, but I give it credit for putting such a thought out there to begin with.
( out of four)
The Stepford Wives is rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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