The original Stepford Wives (1975) is very much a product of its time, and yet while re-watching it recently I couldn’t but feel its modern-day reverberations. Based on the bestselling novel by Ira Levin, the movie takes place in a country still coming to terms with the broad cultural changes of the 1960s, most notably feminism. Played out mostly in the thriller vein, the movie centers around Joanna Eberhardt (Katherine Ross), a New York City photographer whose lawyer husband convinces her to leave the Big Apple behind for the comforts of suburbia. Although her husband has no trouble integrating into life in Stepford, Connecticut, Joanna finds her surroundings stifling and is troubled by the robotic cheerfulness and domesticity of the town’s female inhabitants.
Although the 1975 version of the movie is not without its coy jokes, a feeling of despair and unease hangs in the air as the film moves towards its disturbing conclusion. In the 2004 remake, directed by Frank Oz and written by Paul Rudnick, this sense of foreboding is all but abandoned in favor of pungent satire. Bigger, brighter, but not necessarily bolder than its predecessor, the new version of The Stepford Wives has Nicole Kidman in the role Joanna, recast as an insanely ambitious television executive who flees to the suburbs after watching her career go down the tubes in the wake of a reality TV show mishap. Matthew Broderick is her husband, whose supportive nature is put to the test when he joins Stepford’s infamous men’s club, headed by the icily charismatic Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken).
Surrounded by SUV-driving women in Lilly Pulitzer sundresses, cynical, black-clad Joanna has trouble fitting in. Fortunately, she finds an ally in resolutely frumpy writer Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and flamboyantly gay architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). The three stare in wonder at the cheerful, subservient housewives that surround them and the over-the-top American family values agenda being shrilly promoted by the townspeople, including Mike Wellington’s maniacally upbeat wife, Claire (Glenn Close).
Writer Rudnick manages to get in quite a few jabs at the McMansion culture that currently has a stranglehold on America’s more affluent suburbs, and his screenplay does not shy away from overt political critique (most of the daggers being aimed at Mr. Bush’s far-right constituency). Mostly, however, the film makes clever, and very current, references to pop culture, most notably society’s fixation with makeovers and reality TV shows.
Rudnick’s message, however, gets muddled in the film’s sloppy ending, which may or may not have been the result of the many reshoots the movie reportedly underwent. Messy and watered-down, the final third of the film opts for half-baked suspense and a strange and unfitting feel-good vibe.
Further complicating matters is Broderick’s performance as Joanna’s husband, Walter Kresby. While he excels at playing the sort of mild-mannered schnook who has always played second fiddle to his glamorous wife, Broderick has a great deal more difficulty channeling the rage and frustration Walter has built up over the years. His inability to convince us of Walter’s exasperation ultimately makes the inherent dramatic conflict all the more unbelievable. Kidman, however, does a wonderful job of playing Joanna, and her easy chemistry with Midler and Bart (both in top comic form) is one of the main reasons to see the picture. Rid of fake noses and Civil War era corsets, she reminds us of what a terrific comic actress she can be. Ultimately, however, even the sharpest performances and wittiest jokes are not enough to overcome the film’s incoherent ending.