- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

“The Stepford Wives” was one of the exploitable duds of 1975, so flat-footed and literal-minded that it remained oblivious to mischievous and satirical possibilities. Derived from an Ira Levin best seller that trifled with the marital anxieties of the 1970s, “Stepford” envisioned an ominously idyllic suburban community in Connecticut where the husbands conspired to transform their wives into statuesque, happy-homemaker and bed-partner zombies.

Given the absence of any pressure to live up to an esteemed original, screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz seemed to be sitting pretty as the jesters in charge of an updated “Stepford Wives.” Maybe some fear of comparison would have helped.

Previous collaborators on the Kevin Kline comedy “In & Out,” Mr. Rudnick and Mr. Oz prove so gauche and blatant while administering a farcical makeover to the Levin pretext that the results are inane and stupefying instead of clever and satisfying.

Everything about the movie is pitched frenetically off the mark. The opening episode introduces the heroine, Nicole Kidman’s Joanna Eberhart, as an update of the Faye Dunaway caricature in “Network.” A TV programming executive, Joanna is so crazed and oblivious that she champions “reality” shows even more outrageous and degrading than the existing specimens. As a result, she begins as a monster of ambition, hoarse and obnoxious while touting her network’s success at an affiliates’ bash.

Professional triumph supposedly backfires in a way that leaves Joanna jobless and recovering from a nervous breakdown. In that condition she becomes susceptible to a change of scene, leading to a move from Manhattan to Stepford with mild-mannered, highly implausible husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two token children.

Clearly, the filmmakers have created obstacles for themselves that didn’t exist when the original movie cast Katharine Ross as a merely attractive but stable woman who encounters something strange in a new community. The “Stepford” remake finds it necessary to adjust Miss Kidman for normal vibes and never gets the hang of it. She’s always operating in stridently farcical or overcompensating registers that defy straightforward sympathy.

It doesn’t help much to flaunt Stepford as a “gated” community where all the houses must begin at about $5 million and children never look essential to anyone’s conception of domesticity. From the look of things, only bimbo zombies and their smugly complacent keepers would be attracted to Stepford in the first place.

The saving grace in the original movie was Paula Prentiss as the normal wife whose eventual transformation was doubly effective. Easygoing and desirable before being brainwashed, she became a zany asset when Stepfordized. The remake lacks a comparable figure, despite trying to double up with Bette Midler as a brash feminist author and Roger Bart as an effeminate architect whose partner, David Marshall Grant, is evidently susceptible to a makeover that gives him a manlier man.

Just as the original movie lagged weirdly behind changes in topical marital comedy that had distinguished “Divorce American Style” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” the remake contrives to lag behind such devices as the gay couple, already deployed far more smartly in “Flirting With Disaster” and “Best of Show.” The trailers suggest a much better comedy, in part because you expect more from such marital matches as Bette Midler with Jon Lovitz and Christopher Walken with Glenn Close. It’s a letdown to discover that they spend most of the movie being shortchanged.

It’s difficult to detect anything in the new “Stepford Wives” that reflects a fresh, revealing sense of mockery, or corrective sanity.

*1/2

TITLE: “The Stepford Wives”

#RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity; occasional sexual vulgarity and innuendo)

CREDITS:Directed by Frank Oz. Screenplay by Paul Rudnick, based on the novel by Ira Levin. Cinematography by Rob Hahn. Production design by Jackson DeGovia. Costume design by Ann Roth. Music by David Arnold

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

WEB SITE:www.StepfordWives.com

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