The 1975 picture "The Stepford Wives," based on Ira Levin's novel, was set in a seemingly perfect suburban community in which the men brought home the bacon while their wives, having been replaced by robots, waltzed around their spanking-clean kitchens in ruffled maxi dresses and floppy sunhats. The suggestion was that feminism and its concomitant thickets of armpit hair had threatened the natural order of things. Men longed for the old days, when women stayed at home and remained dewy-fresh, sexually submissive and properly granny-gowned at all times. The '60s were over, and even the possibly overrated pleasures of the sexual revolution had been forgotten: Time to be gettin' it on with Sunbonnet Sue.
The idea behind "The Stepford Wives" was screwy then, and it's screwy now. The notion of forcing the little lady to stay at home is used as an example of sinister male control. But look at the fringe benefits: a giant, comfortable house in Connecticut, the freedom to watch your children grow up instead of rushing off to work every day, enough money to feed and clothe them well -- sure doesn't look bad to me. Satirizing "The Stepford Wives" is pointless. But that hasn't stopped director Frank Oz ("In and Out," "Little Shop of Horrors") and writer Paul Rudnick ("In and Out," "Isn't She Great") from trying.
In the new "Stepford Wives," Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, an immensely successful black-clad New York TV exec who has made a name for herself with reality shows that prove how infinitely superior women are to men, and how little they need them. But Joanna loses her job and suffers a nervous breakdown, after which her husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), whisks her and their two kids off to the idyllic Connecticut town of Stepford in order to live a simpler, less stressful life. As the town's perkiest denizen, Claire Wellington (played by a highly shellacked and often very funny Glenn Close), explains brightly, Stepford has "no crime, no poverty and no pushing!"
But the town has a secret, and don't look now, but it's wearing a floral sundress: All the women of Stepford (an array of bland beauties, one of whom is the automaton country star Faith Hill) have figures like lithe cheerleaders and rarely leave the house without sporting either a prepster headband or a tiara. Their chief interests are bake sales and Christmas crafts, although they also find time to don mini-negligees for impromptu midday marital zugzug. Their mostly paunchy, ordinary-looking husbands, all of whom belong to the mysterious local Men's Association (which meets regularly in a swank manse outfitted with multiple TV screens for schizophrenic ESPN-grazing), stand by approvingly. (It doesn't appear that they ever go to work, either.)
Needless to say, Joanna, with her severe, dark-brown bob and her wardrobe of sleek midnight colors, doesn't fit in with this clan at all, and she quickly makes friends with the two other town misfits, also big-city transplants: Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), who writes aggressive self-help books about coping with life's little troubles (sample title: "Wait Until He's Asleep, Then Cut It Off"), and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), whose partner, Jerry (David Marshall Grant), has suddenly and mysteriously become a conservative Republican. The three of them have a grand old time taking potshots at the bubbleheads around them, patting themselves on the back for being hip and knowing enough to, say, make catty bulimia jokes -- apparently, living in the big city equips you with this kind of biting wit.
This new "Stepford Wives" may think it's a satire, but it isn't really: It's more of a knowing spoof, a politely cranky little comic diatribe that reminds us, with many winks and twinkles, that even in these enlightened times, we're still forced to fight conformity, dammit. The picture is mildly entertaining and stringently unoffensive (provided you're not a supersensitive upper-crusty type from Connecticut). Yet it has problems from the start. For one thing, as in the earlier version, it's hard to see exactly how these retrofitted women fit any guy's idea of the feminine ideal: Pretty sundresses are one thing, but what guy doesn't run a mile from any woman who shows the least interest in wearing a tiara? The movie sets up not a row of straw men, but a chorus line of girls woven from the finest gold straw available: The wives of Stepford were all, Joanna learns, formerly successful business figures before their far less successful husbands, feeling jealous and diminished and ignored, transformed them into docile robotic sorority girls. If these guys were truly evil, wouldn't they be milking their wives' earning power, the better to spend it on assorted on-the-side tootsies? Or at least putting them into some hot stripper get-ups? (Now that would make for a hot bake sale.)
But "The Stepford Wives" just tootles along aimlessly before smacking into a hard lump of a surprise ending that makes no sense whatsoever. The picture is never as sharp as it needs to be: It's fully aware of its own cleverness without being actually clever. (Even the opening credits, a cute, jazzy montage of brightly colored '50s-housewife motifs, seems to be trying way too hard.) And neither Oz nor Rudnick ever quite grabs ahold of the movie's tone. That may not be entirely their fault. It's public knowledge that the movie was tinkered with at the 11th hour after test audiences expressed befuddlement over its "dark" undertones. Whatever Oz had to do to "The Stepford Wives," it has unfortunately entered the no-tone zone. In his scramble to make the picture more palatable to a mass audience, he may have filed whatever teeth it ever had down to mere gummy stubs. It's something of a Stepford movie: You keep peering in there to see if there are any brains at work, and though you catch an occasional glimmer of something, it's not quite enough to convince you.
Then again, it's more likely that the premise never had the juice to begin with. In some ways, this new version is an improvement. Shot by Rob Hahn, it has an elegant, crisp look: You could call the whole thing a wicked visual riff on the notion of the male gaze, a case of the lens capturing an idea that a movie's dialogue and structure can only scratch at. Christopher Walken, as the creepy techie who heads the Men's Association, struts through the movie with the confidence of a long-legged stray cat. And even in a nothing role like this one, Kidman throws off a distinctively sharp sweetness: Her beauty is so coolly porcelain that she teeters on the edge of being off-putting. But I find her beguiling. Even when I'm hard-pressed to believe a thing her character does or says, I somehow find myself believing in the essence of Kidman.
But not even Kidman's heady perfume is enough to counteract the halo of White Linen that hovers around "The Stepford Wives." The wives of Stepford, poor things, have lost their brains. Wit and style mean nothing to them; they don't care about books or politics or current events or, we can assume, movies. They're a fictional force who nonetheless represent a very real danger, and we must stop them immediately -- particularly before they fill out any more comment cards at test screenings.