No, The Stepford Wives is not a great film — but in all honesty, neither was Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version of the Ira Levin novel. And, despite the fact that this adaptation is one of the most obviously flawed movies to be given a major release in living memory, I honestly think I prefer director Frank Oz’s take on the material.
The original film was a somewhat typical downbeat ’70s offering that moved at what is sometimes called a “methodical pace” (which is critic-speak for “slow”). It was also written and played with a straight face, which is not something that can be said of this remake that’s more send-up than thriller. Any satire in the original was limited to the very concept of a community where all the women are picture-perfect housewives who do housework while dressed like Grace Kelly and exist only to serve their husbands. That first film was, of course, a reaction to the conservative male reaction to women’s lib, and as such, very much of its time.
In the hands of screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey), the story has been updated in ways that both do and don’t work. The crux of the satire concerning this “perfect” community is still relevant, and it pointedly plays as a realized vision of the Reaganistic ideal of a return to a set of 1950s standards — or at least those standards as presented on TV and in advertising. And the inclusion of a gay couple in Stepford is a solid updating, especially when the more flamboyant of the pair, Roger Bannister (Roger Bart from the Broadway production of The Producers), is transformed into a God-fearing, Brooks Brothers-wearing, Log Cabin Republican congressional candidate. At points like this — and in the character of Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), who ultimately seems to be a Nancy Reagan spoof in a manner I can’t reveal without giving away too much — the movie flirts with the sublimely subversive.
The idea of this perfect community as being “all inclusive” by welcoming gays and Jews — but only if they comport themselves in certain ways — certainly has more than a little present-day relevance. But Rudnick and Oz have spread their net too wide. Making Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman) the callous, ratings-driven program director of a television network is funny enough, and provides for some pertinent satire of reality shows — complete with the possible fall-out from such (and a great cameo from Mike White). Yet this characterization also carries a built-in problem, because it makes Joanna into a wholly unsympathetic character. Thus it’s difficult to feel any great concern over her plight — something the film then tries to correct in various ways.
Realizing that she is little better than a castrating monster, Joanna tries to turn herself into a “model” Stepford wife, and that helps. Another plus is the self-deprecating sense of humor she evidences in the presence of her only two friends, Roger and the slovenly, outspoken writer Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), whose latest book about her relationship with her mother, I Love You, But Please Die, is not quite Stepford material.
But like many things in the film, there’s this sense of the script trying to crawl out of a hole its dug itself into. It doesn’t sink the movie — in no small part due to Kidman’s surprisingly adept comic delivery and the chemistry between her, Midler and Bart — but it does damage it.
What really comes near to killing the film is its final act, which smacks of a quick fix of additional scenes after bad preliminary screenings. Oz’s film looks and feels like it was supposed to end exactly as the original had. It even duplicates the 1975 version’s supermarket sequence, but then it goes on and makes nonsense out of what’s been established. This is almost impossible to discuss without giving away too many specifics of the plot for anyone not already familiar with the story; let’s just say that the final comeuppance of Stepford — and how these “perfect” mates were created — is completely at odds with what the first three-quarters of the movie has carefully established.
The film’s saving grace lies in the shrewd playing of the principals and Rudnick’s unerring sense for sharp one-liners and little comic set-pieces. It’s hard not to give a break to a movie that includes a delirious scene about making Christmas keepsake ornaments (“Let’s celebrate the birth of our Lord with yarn!”) and the “broadminded” inclusion of Bobbie, who’s advised she can make a snowman out of pinecones and put “one of those little hats” on him to make him Jewish. (I won’t spoil Bobbie’s take on this, but I will say that this is the best Bette Midler has been in years.) Even when the movie falters — and, in fact, even when it logically derails itself — there’s just enough comic creativity and fine turns by an impeccable cast to keep it worth watching.
Director Oz — whose work was so unbelievably flat on The Score — keeps it all moving with style and flair in a way that almost makes it possible to overlook the flaws. Almost. This could have been a nearly great film, but instead it’s an enjoyable mess that sometimes stretches itself just enough to also boast a degree of social relevance and truly-biting satire.
The Stepford Wives is ultimately a near-miss, but even at that, it’s worth your attention.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke