Another “remake” that merits the title in name only, “The Stepford Wives” isn’t the “troubled” disaster that media reports have suggested it might be, yet nor do its oddly matched parts ever congeal into a fully formed creation. Audiences that find themselves laughing at first will likely be fidgeting as the pic drifts toward a peculiar if oddly predictable climax, requiring — much like the Stepford women — that brains be checked at the door. Whatever curiosity the title and cast muster, odds are this Paramount/DreamWorks collaboration won’t endure long as the summer’s other mechanized monsters roll off the assembly line.
Bearing about as much resemblance to its 30-year-old cinematic source and Ira Levin’s book as the Dan Aykroyd comedy “Dragnet” did to Jack Webb’s small-screen show, the new and not-improved “Stepford Wives” trades in eerie suspense for dark (and sometimes broad) comedy. And where the original film bathed in paranoia about shifting feminist norms, the 21st century mandates its own spin, with a tightly wound career woman — whose corporate flame has shone much brighter than her husband’s — being whisked away to a world of vacant stares and baking cupcakes.
That would be Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), a network president seemingly modeled after the Faye Dunaway character in another mid-’70s fable, “Network.” Riding high in the ratings, Joanna’s latest over-the-top reality show concept (which is pretty funny, as “Saturday Night Live”-type shtick goes) abruptly ends her tenure at mythical EBS, prompting her to rethink priorities.
In a flash, Joanna, husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two kids are zooming down to Connecticut and the idyllic town of Stepford, where the nerdy-looking guys all have impossibly beautiful and attentive wives. So impossible, in fact, that there’s no real build-up, or at least shouldn’t be, to the protagonist’s sense that something weird and wicked is happening here.
Granted, the decades have made the men of Stepford more broad-minded, even allowing a gay couple into the circle. So Joanna takes refuge from this sanitized world with a slovenly writer (Bette Midler) and snarky architect (Roger Bart) — both wildly successful in their own right but equally at odds with their significant others.
Writer Paul Rudnick, who previously worked with director Frank Oz on “In & Out,” dishes up enough amusing dialogue and pop-culture references to keep the movie watchable and entertaining through the first third or so. Walter notes that Joanna’s black-on-black wardrobe — in contrast to the women of Stepford’s sunny palette — screams “castrating Manhattan career bitches,” and when she doesn’t flinch at troll-like men possessing trophy spouses, Joanna explains, “I work in television.”
Still, the creepy idea of men replacing their wives (and husband) is played for laughs somewhat awkwardly, and the underlying premise — an ongoing battle of the sexes where the men have essentially lost — is so much of a stretch that the film offers more satirical gumming than bite.
Oz has always possessed a keen visual eye, and that’s again the case here, though whatever subtlety the first film possessed has been jettisoned from the clever opening credits — depicting idealized feminine images of the past — going forward. (As an aside, the credited producers include Edgar J. Scherick, who died in 2002, having produced the original as well as the 1980 TV movie “Revenge of the Stepford Wives.”)
Although she makes for a smashing poster girl, Kidman can’t do much with her starched role, and Broderick comes across as a more polished (but less funny) version of the frustrated family man he portrayed so effectively in “Election.” The fact the movie holds together at all, in fact, relies on the talented supporting players, from the sheer kick of Christopher Walken’s off-kilter presence to Glenn Close’s painfully forced Cheshire Cat grin to Bart and Midler’s winningly bitchy asides.
Perhaps appropriately, the physical trappings are impeccable, from the lifesize Barbie costumes to the town itself, which could be a Disney-planned community. Even the much-discussed re-shoots, whatever they were, have been stitched in so as not to show. Indeed, whatever convulsions and creative makeover the film underwent are most evident only upon reading the production notes, which label the movie “a subversive and comic look at rampant consumerism and the quest for perfection.”
While that provocative-sounding theme might be fodder for newspaper op-ed writers, it’s certainly not indicative of the frothy antics depicted onscreen. And if it truly describes what this “Stepford Wives” was meant to represent at some point in its development, then like the movie’s conceit about using technology to improve flawed models, it will have to wait for the DVD.