So far, 2004 is shorter on cinematic sequels, remakes, and franchise expansions than most years, but the ones that have come out feel curiously anachronistic. What kind of time warp has a remake of the Ford Administration relic The Stepford Wives opening opposite a big-screen version of Garfield? Could a major motion picture of Webster be far behind? An outgrowth of the '70s backlash against the '60s in general, and feminism in particular, The Stepford Wives was originally a novel by high-concept scaremeister Ira Levin, the man responsible for Rosemary's Baby and the south-of-the-equator Hitler clone-athon The Boys From Brazil. Levin moved a lot of books in 1972, but the Connecticut community of Stepford truly became a synonym for suburban conformity and unspoken misogyny three years later, with the release of the film adaptation starring Katharine Ross as a hungry-minded consciousness-raising-session enthusiast who learns that her new neighborhood has more dead ends than its street plan suggests.
While no one would mistake the original Stepford Wives for a great movie, it still found ways to shake chills out of an absurd premise by making its metaphor the main event. Directed by Bryan Forbes from a straight-faced William Goldman script, it contains a whiff of camp in its scenes of sundress-clad grocery-store zombies, but in an era when "women's lib" had turned from a rallying cry to a dirty word, the whiff of truth is even more powerful. The new version by director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick at least gets the look right. Its Stepford residents have found a way to take the edge off life: They live in sprawling hillside estates, but keep the common touch with bake-offs and square-dance sessions. The men spend their days golfing or lounging in a private lodge, while the women invariably become model obedient housewives, whether they like it or not.
Stepping into the Ross role, Nicole Kidman stars as an edgy TV executive who retreats to Stepford with her husband Matthew Broderick after a mistake brings an end to her network's endless stream of cheaply produced reality shows. (Unfortunately, the film resists the opportunity for an easy happy ending by stopping the movie at that point.) Immediately appalled by the sheer suburbanity of her new home, Kidman finds even more to resist when she meets locals like Glenn Close, a smiling, Donna Reed-attired matriarch who leads her fellow Stepfordites in exercise routines modeled after household appliances. Sensing rottenness behind it all, Kidman enlists two equally suspicious residents—acerbic author Bette Midler and Roger Bart, the flamboyant partner of an embarrassed gay Republican—to investigate, eventually discovering that powerful community members have taken the principle of better living through technology to a new level.
There are at least a few suggestions that Rudnick and Oz knew they had to drag the story into the 21st century. As the neighborhood mastermind, Christopher Walken talks of "streamlining" a spouse's flaws, and the euphemism echoes Midler and Bart's jolly discussion of their favorite prescription-only mood-altering substances. Mostly, however, the film plays its suburban satire for broad, cheap, and only occasionally effective laughs. Then it changes its mind and shifts into drama, until, in a seemingly tacked-on (and logic-defying) ending, it shifts back. Maybe the scenes that seem to be missing from the herky-jerky (and openly troubled) final product fill in the blanks, but the remaining scenes still don't work. Rudnick is a wit, and his script allows everyone a decent one-liner or two. But the problem with one-liners is that they only last one line, leaving a whole movie around them that needs filling in.