When Ira Levin’s book was made into the original movie in 1975, it was a chilling allegory on the value of nonconformity and real love. Its camp value was unintentional and no doubt now a source of embarrassment to the filmmakers. It was meant to be a suspense movie, a horror movie. I suspect, I mean, I haven’t interviewed any of the filmmakers and I am certain the dire fashions of the time will render any unbiased interpretation impossible were I able to find it on video. Theirs was a sci-fi vision of suburbia hell with horrid floppy hats and peasant chic.
Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives film, however, is very much in on the joke, which can defuse an explosive if the nods and winks are obvious. Gone is the biting social commentary in favor of pop cultural mockery (however just) and letting Matthew Broderick nebbish away the last vestiges of Ferris Bueller’s soul. That, and letting Nicole Kidman run around in one violently unflattering getup after another. Christopher Walken doesn’t even get to really be Christopher Walken; ditto for Jon Lovitz being himself. Bette Midler, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten to really be Bette, fun, self-deprecating Jewish comedienne since The First Wives Club. Welcome new face Roger Bart as the important half of the first gay couple in Stepford, who lends much camp to an already campy scene and a nice attempt at a modern twist on the Stepford Wives’ notions of sexual politics.
Enough cannot be said about Glenn Close, who is probably the only actress alive who could have pulled off the climax of the film (and still be believable as the glassy-eyed matriarch of Stepford). Let’s just say her training from Fatal Attraction *and* the Dalmatians movies serves her well here. Credit must also be given to the filmmaking team for succeeding enough in the serious aspect of the story to manage to make the sight of a magazine-perfect home positively chilling.
Stepford starts strong with an estrogen-rich concoction of pop-culture mockery, and thence into insanity and creepy faux-sanity post-haste. We don’t get to know anyone long enough to get a bead on how they should be; the film seems to say, “Get it? You’re normal, they are normal like you, this is weird, let’s get on with the good stuff.” Using Oz’s 30-some-odd-years of brilliance with spectacle and composition, he takes care of the gaps in the new script with good visual work. Apparently, he also paid for it with truly embarrassing amounts of product placement.
If you don’t know, nerds bring their hot, successful wives to Stepford and they (the women) appear to become Miss America runners up with no aim but to please their man, and in a creepy, 1950’s marriage manual kind of way, too. Men’s fear of being overcome by their urban goddesses is obvious, but why did they marry them in the first place? It’s still pruriently sad that it seems like such an obvious fantasy, and why do people still buy into it? It’s so wooden. We get no answers – this is a comedy. It’s not chilling. It’s sad that we have not come so far after all, which does take some of the zing out. However, it’s worth a rent and a chuckle just to see Roger Bart and Glenn Close do their thing.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/11/04
Time in minutes 93
Director Frank Oz
Studio Paramount Pictures