Leave it to Frank Oz to find the funny side of brainwashing.
You can't blame him, however. The Stepford Wives has become a touchstone
for having your personality remade. In any movie, TV show or novel where people
are being reprogrammed to be "better," some character always says something along
the lines of "They're making us into Stepford (fill in the blank!)" Then there
are all the "official" Stepford spin-offs. The Stepford Husbands. The Stepford
Children. The Revenge of the Stepford Wives. And so on. Ira Levin, who wrote the
original book, really hit a nerve in our collective psyche, so Hollywood keeps
returning to Stepford every few years for a new version. We're so familiar with
it now, though, you have to take it in a new direction to keep it interesting.
Why not black comedy?
In this version, helmed by Frank (Miss Piggy/Yoda) Oz, Nicole (Sparkling Diamond!)
Kidman stars as Joanna Eberhard. Joanna is a driven power executive, head of
what apparently is the Emasculation Channel. When one of their shows goes bad,
she's dumped like a hot potato and has a nervous breakdown. Kidman really throws
herself into this role and has fun with it. Just watch her face in the scene
when she realizes she's fired. She's magnificent.
So her husband Walter, played by Matthew (Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?) Broderick,
quits his job as a vice president at the same company. Yes, he worked under
his wife. They pack up their two kids and head off to Stepford, Connecticut,
to begin their lives anew.
I think we all know the basics of what happens from here. Joanne meets the
local ladies and discovers most of them to be throwbacks to the 50s idealized
happy homemakers, led by Claire Wellington (Glenn "Rabbit Stew" Close). Meanwhile,
Walter joins the Stepford Men's Club. There he makes friends with the local
guys, including community leader and Claire's husband, Mike Wellington (Chris
"More Cowbell" Walken). They both start to come to the conclusion that there
is something... different about their new, idyllic community.
Joanne finds two other ex-New Yorkers to bond with, Bobbie Markowitz (Bette
"Wind Beneath My Wings" Middler) and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). At first
they mock and deride the locals, wondering what on earth is wrong with the women
in town, becoming a little island of sanity in this little "paradise" for each
other. Then Joanne decides they should attempt to adapt to the locals and try
country living. You can look forward to the scene where they attend the meeting
of the Stepford Ladies' Book Club.
Bette and Roger are two of the main reasons to watch the movie, as they have
some of the funniest bits. Roger may be the ultimate gay New Yorker stereotype
who flames so much he threatens to burn the set down, but he plays it full-on
shamelessly that it works. He also has one of the few poignant scenes in the
film, when he realizes what his conservative husband has planned for him. It's
very well done, and one of the few places where the situation isn't quite played
Plot wise, it's pretty much what you would expect. Some people are going to
complain that the film is predictable, but come on, it's The Stepford Wives.
Complaining that it's predictable is like complaining that the ocean has salty
water. This story and The Manchurian Candidate defined how we see brainwashing
in movies and TV. You really can't criticize it for following the formula that
it defined. Where Oz goes for the difference this time is the humor angle. He
pours on the black humor with a ladle.
There are a lot of bits that really work. It helps that Oz has picked a cast
who all go with his dark comic vision of the script and are talented comedic
actors. The entire cast shines, and if any of them had struck a wrong note it
would have brought the whole movie crashing down. Glen Close seems to be having
a ball playing the ultimate '50s wife in all her scenes. There are also some
great zinger lines, none of which I will ruin by repeating here. If you don't
like your humor with a dark edge, or broad comedy, you won't like this film.
There are a few bits that don't work. In some places the humor is a bit broad,
in others it's a bit forced. There is also some plot jumping, things happening
for what seems to be no reason except to further the plot. But while I don't
think that it's going to be a classic of the genre, it certainly does bring
a new flavor to it. I also have to give the movie points for having Harvey
Birdman, Attorney at Law playing in the background in one scene.
If you are into black comedy, or just want to drool over Nicole Kidman for
an hour and a half, go and see this flick.