The Stepford Wives

2004, Movie, PG-13, 93 mins

Review

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This sumptuously photographed and art-directed remake of THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975) replaces feminist paranoia with mild satirical barbs at Martha Stewart-inflected conformity, but shoots itself in the perfectly manicured foot by pretending that the novel's disturbing implications don't matter. High-powered, black-clad Manhattan television executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is precipitously fired after an embarrassing incident involving a disgruntled contestant whose humiliation on one of her salacious reality shows drives him murderously insane. While Joanna undergoes electroshock therapy for her subsequent nervous breakdown, her milquetoast husband, perpetually supportive Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), buys a palatial home in gated Stepford, Conn., hoping that a fresh start in new surroundings will help mend their fraying marriage. Though self-appointed local social director Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) does her best to sell Joanna on the Stepford way of life, Joanna has trouble warming up to her vacuous, perfectly coiffed and made-up neighbors, whose days are a pastel flurry of shopping, cooking, cleaning and even exercising in figure-hugging sun dresses, strappy heels and broad-brimmed hats. Joanna instead befriends kindred malcontents Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), a frumpy, highly successful writer, and fabulously bitchy architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). Like Joanna, Bobby and Roger are in relationships strained by the demands of two careers, and like Joanna, both moved to Stepford at the behest of their long-suffering significant others. After Roger changes overnight into a Log Cabin Republican like his politically ambitious partner (David Marshall Grant), Bobby and Joanna get serious about figuring out what's going on in Stepford. Repositioning Ira Levin's feminist-backlash thriller as a black comedy isn't a bad idea — though adding a gay couple is au courant but nonsensical; consider the odds that a community predicated on conservatively oppressive ideas about the proper place of women is same-sex-couple friendly — just a difficult one. If you can't find a way to soften the story's bedrock conceit — the Stepford husbands are so threatened by independent women that they're willing to trade in their flesh-and-blood spouses for flawless fembots programmed to please — without thoroughly defanging it, you're sunk. While Paul Rudnick's script delivers plenty of his trademark witty banter, it never solves the fundamental problem and bears evidence of having been clumsily reworked as well. The movie takes a desperately wrong turn about 45 minutes in, and you can almost hear the great sucking sound as the whole thing churns down the drain in a swirl of narrative contradictions. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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