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.