MOVIE REVIEW: THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004)
I have a few friends who grew up in Stepford. Completely dominated in early life by the idea of the women they should be, an idea that was fostered both by the larger-than-life men in their lives as well as key women, it took determination, a lot of therapy and colossal courage to become the independent women they are today.
Knowing this, I think that Stepford is not a pretty place, contrary to both the 1975 and 2004 movies built upon the Ira Levin novel. It is also not a funny place.
The earlier film had the right tone. We followed the discoveries right along with Katharine Ross in this mystery. We were frightened, and we watched in horror when good friends like Paula Prentiss (you remember her in several beach blanket movies) fall under the Stepford curse.
This new film, however, is determined not to keep anything from us. Director Frank Oz acts as if we know all along what Stepford is, so there’s no use keeping it a secret. So, if we know what’s supposed to be happening, and the horror is telegraphed, the movie should have a lighter tone. It doesn’t.
And, in deference perhaps to the 30-year difference, Oz adds some modern touches to this latest treatment. We see a Jewish couple and, yes, even a gay couple fall into the trap. The gay angle, you would think, would elicit more laughs, as most of the stereotypes are played out. One of the funniest and most ironic moments of the play should have been when Roger, our co-conspirator, is “made” into a Republican conservative, his hair is changed, and his manner of flamboyant dress is ripped from him. However, that change, which happens in a matter of seconds, doesn’t have the impact of irony it should, and it certainly isn’t funny.
There are some wonderful performances here. Glenn Close is as close to a Stepford wife as possible. She just glows in these “smaller” roles as she ages. Christopher Walken is primarily used as a parody of himself. But since he’s already a parody of a parody, it’s hard not to laugh as soon as he comes onscreen. Matthew Broderick is developing into a fine comedian; his face tells you exactly what’s going on.
Nicole Kidman is fine, but she doesn’t take command of the movie, referring, instead, to veterans like Close and Walken. Kidman is much better in the beginning of the film when she’s the hyper T.V. executive – very believable as the wonderfully anal CEO right out of “Network.”
The real problem is that The Stepford Wives in 2004 is a comedy. At least I think it was supposed to be. There were a few moments when I laughed, mostly at Bette Midler’s clever deliverance of a line or two. (And, I’m sorry, but Bette as a blonde doesn’t seem “perfect” to me.) But the movie is too serious to be funny. The real truth, at least in my mind, is that the reality of Stepford is a tragedy. The town of Stepford still exists in America. Men still think if they could change their wives, they’d had perfect lives, and the women in their lives pass that message onto their daughters. But trying to squeeze laughs out of this “perfect” scene was a real mistake.