By Jeremiah Lewis | June 14, 2004

Spoilers Ahead

When I say that I have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking when they made this movie, I say it with total and utter sincerity. I truly believe they didn’t know what they were doing. Were they making a dark comedy? A spoof? A true remake? A thriller?

Frank Oz used to be a good director, back when he was making movies like “The Little Shop of Horrors.” Now, his talent has fizzled away. Case in point, the beginning of “The Stepford Wives.” It was so familiar to his film “In and Out” that I almost believed they were on the same set. Replace a fake Academy Awards show in “In and Out” with reality television, and you have the same thing. (Maybe the problem is also with writer Paul Rudnick, who gave us the uber-forgettable “Marci X” last year.)

“The Stepford Wives” opens during a convention of television affiliates for a powerful women’s network. Leading the new slate of programming is Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman). She rattles through her accomplished emasculating reality shows. We see long clip after long clip of men-bashing TV before a honked-off former contestant tries to gun her down. Unfortunately for the audience, he missed.

After Joanna suffers an emotional breakdown, she moves to Stepford, Connecticut to start a new life with her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and kids. Joanna’s only friend in town is the dreary writer Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler) and the homosexual “wife” Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) – who is probably the best thing in the film during his pre-Stepford phase. Of course, all three notice that things are a little too perfect in Stepford – kind of like a full-time Amway convention.

The story and themes behind “The Stepford Wives” are way past their time. They’re products of the 1960s. Ira Levin originally wrote his book during the height of the sexual revolution when many women were busting out of the homes and into the workplace.

But now? It just doesn’t wash. My generation saw our mothers working. As adults, some of us are seeing our wives bring home a bigger paycheck. And trust me, we’re okay with that. The whole “Stepford Wives” fantasy just doesn’t work for us. In fact, most of us find it kind of icky to begin with.

So, the filmmakers tried to change the story a bit. It is no longer a story of men keeping their wives in subjugated roles. It’s about nerdy guys who start out married to successful, wealthy, powerful women (like when does that happen without Bill Gates’ salary???) and eventually forcing them into servitude.

In this respect, the film could have worked as a spoof on itself. But there are only hints of this in the plot. At times, it tries to be too funny, and at times it tries unsuccessfully to hammer home the original message from the 1960s. Ultimately, we’re left with a really, really unlikable couple that we’re supposed to root for. Near the end, I found myself wondering if it would be better for Joanna and Walter to be a Stepford family or for them to move back to New York. To be honest, either way they’re screwed.

Additionally, Frank Oz couldn’t resist several trite and overused Hollywood strawmen. Bette Midler’s character is Jewish, so we have the standard Christians-aren’t-sensitive digs. And after being Stepfordized, Roger decides to run for Senate, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t carry the narrow-minded message that anyone who wears an American flag pin on their lapel is a mindless drone.

Oddly enough, the ending of the film is the best and the worst part. It’s the best part because it does something different with the story. It goes farther than the original went. It takes us past the supermarket aisle. (Now, before you read any further, I’m going to warn you that the next paragraph contains spoilers if you don’t know the “secret” of the Stepford wives.)

But it only gets an A for effort and ambition. The film gets an F for execution. The ending, while different, is entirely predictable and silly. There’s a lot that doesn’t really make any sense. There’s a witch’s brew of ideas all being stirred around, and none of them settle out. It’s really quite a mess. Are the women robots? Or do they just have microchips implanted in their brains? I don’t know, and I’ll bet that you couldn’t get a straight answer about this from Frank Oz, either.

Okay, I’m done with the spoilers.

So, would I like to trade in my wife for the latest Stepford model? No thank you. But I’d gladly take a shot at refurbishing Frank Oz into a competent filmmaker again.
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