The Stepford Wives (2004)

Directed by Frank Oz

I’ve always felt the idea of Stepford Wives was better than the execution — be it the original Ira Levin novel or the first movie based on it, back in 1975.

To be honest, I felt the same way when I first saw the latest version of The Stepford Wives, this time directed by Frank Oz from a screenplay by Paul Rudnick.

It sort of fell flat for me when I first watched it. Now I’ve seen it a second time and have revised my opinion. Why give it a second chance?

Mainly because I’ve always liked Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, Bowfinger). And also because I’m convinced that, at least with some movies, your mood (for lack of a better word) can affect how well the movie works for you.

The Stepford Wives (2004).

This last point, the mood thing, certainly seems to have been the case for me with The Stepford Wives. It fell flat the first time; the second, I quite enjoyed it.

I think this is because Oz gives his films more of a certain gentler albeit glossier “Hollywood” feel than most directors and this can be off-putting if you’re not prepared.

If you are, and you’re in the right frame of mind, it can work like gangbusters. (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of my favourite movies. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched it.)

As for the latest take on The Stepford Wives … The original story is essentially a satire, one on society and feminism and how the two relate. As mentioned earlier, I sometimes think the idea of robotic people (in this case, women) is better than its various manifestations (either book form or cinematically). I’ve often been in situations (i.e., work) when I’ve said something like, “It’s the Stepford Wives,” suggesting robotic, thoughtless behavior by someone or some group.

Perhaps one reason I didn’t respond well the first time I saw this latest take on the idea is because I had the first movie in mind, 1975’s The Stepford Wives directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katharine Ross, … and I forgot this one was being directed by Frank Oz.

Matthew Broderick and Nicole Kidman in The Stepford Wives (2004).

The 1975 version was essentially a horror story with satirical elements. This latest version is a comedy – a satirical one although the satire has a softer edge than what contemporary satires usually have. (This, I think, reflects the Oz sensibility which doesn’t really lend itself to biting satire – for which I’m grateful. That kind of satire tends to make for lousy storytelling, at least that’s been my experience.)

As a comedy, this The Stepford Wives works well enough. I think I paid more attention the second time to the dialogue, which is quite funny. And being in the mood for a comedy certainly helped to make the jokes work. The movie pokes fun generally at contemporary life with a focus on successful career women and their husbands, and the nouveau riche aspect of the high tech industry. (And it’s largely on target with its jokes.)

However, the movie doesn’t work quite as well as some other Oz comedies because its undercut by its satirical nature and, I think, the casting to some extent.

In a movie like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Oz got great characters out of Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headly.

In Bowfinger, he got a great character out of Martin again.

Glenn Close and Nicole Kidman in The Stepford Wives (2004).

But in The Stepford Wives he is relying on Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick as the movie’s glue. To be fair to the actors, there isn’t much in the script for them to work with – the characters aren’t comic and, worse, aren’t interesting. They are types – rather bland ones who simply react to what is going on around them.

Glenn Close is really the only character with some range and she is marvelous in her performance. Unfortunately, her character is a bit annoying (deliberately, for comic effect). We don’t really get to see her with any depth until the closing scenes.

The problem with all of this is that while the film is funny and enjoyable it can never hit a home run because it doesn’t have any emotional magnetism. As an audience, we’re to identify with the characters played by Kidman and Broderick (Joanna and Walter). But neither has enough range to make them particularly sympathetic so by the time the film ends while the surprises work there is no emotional closure … because there’s nothing to close.

Actually, The Stepford Wives makes an interesting contrast to a movie like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In the latter, Scoundrels, the comic characters are the main characters – Martin, Caine and Headly. The supporting characters are the ones playing it straight.

The Stepford Wives reverses this: it is Kidman and Broderick who are playing it straight, the comedy comes from the supporting roles.

It may be, however, that within a comedy playing it straight to some extent requires that it be played without much range in order to get the comic effect so, when straight is the main role, it’s difficult to generate an emotional response to a story.

I’m not sure … I’m just speculating. In the end, The Stepford Wives is an enjoyable movie. It’s funny and quick but it’s also like a meal that, when you finish, leaves you still feeling hungry.

One Comment

  1. I had the same experience. I even considered it an insult to Levin. Last year I saw it again, and it was, of course, the same movie, yet a totally different one. Even though Levin never intended it to be, I found it a superb black comedy, now why hadn’t I grasped that the first time?!

    I never saw Kidman – whom I secretly dislike – in better acting shape. Close is overacting like mad, and what a delight to watch! Bette Midler as Bobby- perfect. It’s hard to believe that her and Kidman’s ego’s clashed on the set. And Broderick, he’s just right. (…thinking of his spouse, I dislike Sara Jessica Parker even more, but she could have made a great Joanna, perhaps an even better one. She certainly is more human than Kidman).

    Not a biting satire? But it is! And I don’t view this Joanna and Walter as normal, sober, everyday people. I think an approach like that would have been a grave mistake. It would have killed the slowly growing suspicion and ‘something’s not quite right here’-feeling because in contrast the town occupants would have come across as total lunatics. The Ebenharts would have moved out within a week.
    So I think that balance is OK.

    For every novel Levin shook out the most breathtaking ideas, but this was a not-so-good book. It’s better than Sliver, but just. There are too many echo’s from Rosemary’s Baby, which it followed up too fast. I found the ending dissatisfying. In Rosemary you were forced to chew down the Impossible and Unspeakable, and it left you speechless (whoever’s going to remake that one, I’ll personally assassinate). In Stepford, more or less the same trick is used. OK, Oz’ change in ending wasn’t the best choice perhaps, but I wonder if Oz was left a choice here. In deciding not to treat the story and the characters serious, it’s actually the only ending that fits: a hilarious one.

    Americans have great comic sense (and perfect timing), at the same time they often kill their movie comedies by going overboard. The fun blows up in their own faces, so to speak. SW isn’t one of these, it’s in my top 3 of best cinema laughs. The Aerobic Hour is already a classic scene. The unmasking of the Wellingtons could have turned ugly, but it didn’t. The episode gives a good twist to the story, actually.
    The movie should have been given a different title, though. It strays too far from the Levin novel (where are the heirs when you need them)

    =it’s also like a meal that, when you finish, leaves you still feeling hungry=
    So right. Stepford Wives is one of the very, very few movies which makes me vaguely hungry for a sequel…

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