As Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska famously opined, “Comedy is tragedy reversed.” Director Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives—an updated version of the 1975 cult classic starring Katherine Ross as a career woman trapped in a hellish suburb of docile housewives—enthusiastically takes this outlook to heart. Substituting horror for hilarity, this satiric jumble of half-baked social commentary and hit-or-miss jokes is an exercise in meta self-consciousness that parodies—with varying degrees of amusement—the original’s forced-domestication paranoia and Hollywood’s romanticized vision of the ‘50s. And unfortunately, it’s determined to make sure you know it’s—wink, wink!—supremely aware of its own ridiculousness.
Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a cutthroat network TV president who likes to complement her severe short brown haircut and pale skin with all-black designer suits and red lipstick, but when she’s fired from her position for taking reality TV’s “battle of the sexes” theme too far, she and her mousy husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) relocate to Stepford, CT. There, career-obsessed Joanna is confronted by an army of deranged happy homemakers in flowery sundresses and rigid big hair led by Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), a vision of ‘50s-era perfection who orchestrates exercise classes in high heels and presides over a reading club that focuses on Christmas decoration books. The resulting culture-clash, limp as it is routine, affords Oz the opportunity to concentrate on both the dichotomy between the urban and the rural (comments abound about how dangerous New York City is), as well as between the happy, heterosexually virile Stepford-ized villains and the story’s miserable “homosexuals”—embodied by the out-of-the-closet architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), the androgynous Joanna (who hasn’t screwed her husband in a year), and the suspicious, man-hating author Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler).
Yet as with so much of this muddled remake’s societal critique, the film’s satire is sloppy and vague. Paul Rudnick’s script, not even pretending to hide its central mystery—the Stepford Wives are buxom robots!—strives to reveal the inherent idiocy of idealizing a decade that everyone now recognizes was far from Leave it to Beaver perfect, while simultaneously spoofing the original’s fear of a world in which men crave docile blow-up dolls (in one of the film’s new, slightly amusing wrinkles, they also double as walking ATM machines). The material’s trite transparency, however, further weighs down this clumsily edited comedy’s attempts to keep its dated culture-analysis fresh. Christopher Walken lays on the sinister kookiness as the ringleader behind the Stepford wife automation project, but the men he presides over are bigger boobs than their female counterparts and seem unrealistically and—like the film itself—nonsensically obsessed with unerotic visions of the past. If Stepford existed today, my gut tells me guys wouldn’t construct country-pretty Faith Hills; they’d build trampy mechanized Carmen Electras.
There isn't a color Frank Oz doesn't pump into any given frame of this millennium update of The Stepford Wives, but while the film is certainly colorful, it's not exactly pretty to look at, mainly because the director still doesn't know how to compose a shot. But this is a sharp transfer: no edge enhancement, no dirt or specks, pleasant grain levels, awesome skin tones, and rock-solid blacks. The Dolby Digital surround track isn't particularly busy and dialogue is stubbornly rooted in the center channel (vocal zooms aren't particularly dynamic), but it's all clear.
Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives made more money than Paramount probably expected, but you wouldn't know from listening to the director's commentary on this DVD edition that the film's production was famously troubled. Case in point: When discussing the special effects sequences that were deleted from the film (namely the sequence where Nicole Kidman's character confronts a Stepfordized Bette Midler), Oz innocently blames the cuts on both Kidman (for taking the material more seriously than everyone else in the cast) and preview audiences for not digging the scenes. (Note to Oz: The reason why the special effects sequences don't work is because the women in your film are still human, in which case it makes no sense for them to have such things as egg beaters and vacuum cleaners coming out of their bodies.) The film isn't very good, but you can imagine how much worse it could have been had the six special effects sequences included on the disc stayed in. As for the features: the pleasant "A Perfect World: The Making of The Stepford Wives" focuses on the building of the film's Connecticut mise-en-scène; the cast defines the term "Steford wife" on "Stepford: A Definition"; "Stepford: The Architect" extols screenwriter Paul Rudnick and producer Scott Rudin's attempts to update the original film; and "The Stepford Wives" and "The Stepford Husbands" gets inside the heads of the film's women and men. Rounding things off is a gag reel, a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, and previews of other upcoming titles from Paramount Home Entertainment.
A great Christmas present for Mom, unless of course she's a "castrating Manhattan career bitch," in which case you'll want to opt for the pinecone vibrator.