The Stepford Wives
I’ve never actually seen the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives
(though it is now sitting near the bottom of my GreenCine queue), though the film is so ingrained in modern popular culture I can almost swear that I have. Say the word “Stepford” and everybody nods knowingly, so it probably seemed like a good idea at the time to take the film in a more comedic direction, to push it into the more satirical realm of Ira Levin’s source novel. Yeah, not so much. Whereas the original came out during a specific historical period, during the social upheaval engendered by the rise of feminism as a cultural-political force (among other similar movements), as well as a 70s popular culture revival of an idealized, fantasy version of Eisenhower’s America (i.e. Happy Days
, etc.), the new version of The Stepford Wives
supposedly comes out in the more enlightened times of “post-feminism.” (This historical confluence is probably the real reason for the first film’s reputation, since I can not find anyone, except for Ed Gonzalez, who thinks of the first film as “great.”) And like most examples of mass consumerist product designed under the banner of “post-feminism,” it’s a limpid specimen which pays lip service to the ideas of gender equality and anti-sexism, but in reality it has as many thoughts in its head as the titular androids. I was gummed to boredom by the toothless satire, and only the zingers of Paul Rudnick’s one-liners gave the film any life whatsoever.
The film starts promisingly enough with the credit sequence, a montage of “you have to see it to believe it” 50s era clips depicting ridiculous seeming concepts of femininity, domesticity, and technological consumerism run amok. But then the film launches into its dominant conceptual framework with the introduction of Joanna Eberhard, Nicole Kidman’s character (in an uncharacteristically bad performance, at least in my opinion, characterized by shrieking, whispering, and looking incredulous), an all powerful TV network executive unveiling her new fall lineup of crass reality shows, which are all based on an opposition between men and women, with the women in firm control, and the men, well let’s just say were beyond Stiffed
territory here. In the film, the men are uniformly milquetoasts, nerds, and losers (with the exception of the one flamboyantly gay character). This may seem like a neato gender inversion, but of course, the film shoves the main female characters into caricatures of the successful career woman=bad wife/bad mother, if not dour, emasculating harpies, and in a not surprising twist (SPOILERS), it is really a woman (a very crazy woman who once was a brain surgeon and geneticist, and now wants to make the world “perfect”) who is behind the sinister Men’s Association that is replacing the women of Stepford (END SPOILERS). Wait, sinister may be too strong a word, since the Men’s Association is more like an infantile frathouse, though Christopher Walken does his best with what he is given, and as usual, he’s great.
Pretty much the majority of the movie consists of watching the nonconformists of Stepford, all dyed in the wool Manhattanites, whose grousing about suburban life provides many of the film’s best jokes, slowly succumb to their partner’s machinations. However, the film does little with it’s “1950s as nightmare” premise other than gawk. Presumably, the threat of returning to some kind of weird, 1950s inspired fantasy is so far removed and incongruous from the average spectator’s experience, that simply pointing the camera at several doll-like women in floral dresses and floppy hats constitutes “satire.” You almost wish the filmmakers had had the guts to update the fantasy from the 1950s to something more contemporary and uncomfortable, and you could occasionally tell that the filmmakers were trying to go in that direction. For example, a couple of sights gags about the ubiquity of identical SUVs in Stepford, but that would be too biting. It’s much easier to simply laugh at something the average viewer is already programmed to interpret ironically.
It’s actually the last 30 minutes or so which completely torpedoes the movie. After playing one key sequence entirely straight and melodramatic, the film recreates what even I know to be the final scene of the original movie, before launching onto a clearly tacked on conclusion which involves setting everything right, redeeming Matthew Broderick’s character, and revealing the mysteries of Stepford through pages of endless exposition delivered by an over the top Glen Close. Other than one jolt, and one cool image, this ending is completely ridiculous, and let’s everyone off the hook while delivering the message that “perfection” is not everything, and that men could stand to be more, well manly, and women, more feminine. Yes, let’s compromise and everything will be just great! Kidman even remains a blonde at the end of the movie, though she compromises and keeps her same hair style. Yeah compromise! It's so easy. And the film tops it all off with the men of Stepford’s punishment (at least in a stereotypical case): feminization. Blech.