* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #5 (first-run)
Even more than with most remakes, a present-day edition of The Stepford Wives is a bad idea. The term "Stepford Wife" has entered the general lexicon, and even those of us who haven't read Ira Levin's book or seen the first adaptation know what it means. To try to create a new version is, in a way, like reamking Godzilla or Superman in the present day; it winds up existing in a weird parallel universe where the very concept of giant monsters or superheroes hasn't already become a familiar pop-cultural touchstone.
This is a huge roadblock; how should a filmmaker handle it when the logical first reaction to the situation for characters in a movie called The Stepford Wives would, logically, be to say "this looks like something out of The Stepford Wives"? The first option that leaps to mind is for the movie to be so well-made that the audience forgets that it's the regurgitation that was new thirty years ago but is now shorthand, another movie's throwaway line to quickly and universally describe a situation. The second would be to find something new and modern to say with it.
The Frank Oz-directed Stepford Wives manages neither. Having one of the "wives" be a gay man, for instance, is cosmetic rather than truly clever. There's a tiny glimmer of hope at the start, as Nicole Kidman's Joanna Eberhard is a rather cold-blooded and cynical television executive, peddling emasculation via unscripted TV. There's a dark area for black comedy, horror, or a clever combination of the two there, with the idea that there's this thread of mysandry in modern American culture. If The Stepford Wives could pull off the trick of making a small part of even the most liberal of us want to see Joanna replaced with a docile robot, or feel that she deserves an attitude adjustment, that would be something.
But director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick wuss out. Fifteen minutes into the movie, anything resembling ambiguity disappears, as does anything resembling originality. The bulk of the movie passes without a single moment that doesn't seem utterly familiar, and not just because the trailer spills almost everything. The film backs away from anything edgy, and sucks any dramatic tension out of it, while the jokes are mostly bland. Bette Midler - Bette Midler! - winds up being the most entertaining member of a cast that includes Kidman, Christopher Walken, Matthew Broderick, and Glenn Close.
The worst part, though, is the movie's train wreck of an ending. The filmmakers make a complete mess out of the movie's science-fictional aspects, they stoop to "resolution via random button-pushing", they utilize the idiot plot, and they undercut anything resembling a theme the movie may have been developing. The movie contradicts itself within spaces of 15 seconds. Then comes the overused celebrity cameo, and a final scene that delivers one very weak laugh when anger is called for.
The Stepford Wives reminds me of another of this year's remakes, Dawn Of The Dead. It transplants and polishes the surface elements, but has no idea of what to fill this surface with.