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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005

Women of Stepford can't age gracefully

The Stepford Wives

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Frank Oz
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

An ambience of silliness cloaks "The Stepford Wives," a film that supposedly takes stinging jabs at marriage, feminism and modern living (and whether all three can co-exist in the same household). In the process it will probably wind up offending most audiences in an unintentional kind of way. Maybe because every statement it makes is backed up by a stereotype image: A good marriage is represented by hysterical sex in the middle of the day; feminism is represented by a mother who won't clean, cook or have much to do with her kids; and modern living means living in a fully automated home with a talking refrigerator.

News photo
Nicole Kidman in "The Stepford Wives"

"The Stepford Wives" is a remake of the 1975 movie, based on a popular Ira Levin novel (same title) that addressed the issues confronting U.S. households at the time -- when the sexual revolution had come and gone, feminism was there to stay and "housewife" had become a dirty word. Levin's novel depicted a brave new world in the form of a fictional town called Stepford, Conn., where smiling wives kept perfect homes and chirped sweetly to their husbands when they came home from work. Thirty years ago there was enough creepiness and sardonic irony in the premise; today, everything about it seems hackneyed and oh-so-yesterday.

Which is a shame since "The Stepford Wives" is an attempt at wicked subversion, candy-wrapped in comedy. Feminism, gay coupledom, women executives who make more money than their husbands -- such are the issues addressed here. Strangely enough, however, none of it seems intriguing, funny or even particularly subversive. Could it be? Have the final frontiers of movie taboos been opened up and settled by Hollywood Homesteaders? It sure feels like it. In "Stepford Wives" none of these heretofore juicy issues seems hardly worth the fuss. Perhaps director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick realized this early on and went "Oops!" and proceeded to cram in plot twists, sci-fi snippets and a crowd-pleaser ending to compensate. Rumor has it that the ending was changed several times and when shooting finally wrapped, the mood on set was only slightly better than lunchtime in some terrible grade-school cafeteria.

Not exactly the ideal environment for the finely chiseled and porcelain Nicole Kidman who plays protagonist Joanna Eberhart (a role that went to Katherine Ross in the original movie). Matching the current social backdrop, Joanna isn't a stay-at-home type. She's a powerhouse TV exec in New York with her own hit reality-TV series until the day a contestant (read: victim) holds her responsible for ruining his marriage and take off on a shooting rampage.

Joanna is fired immediately and goes into shock therapy. Devoted husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) suggests relocating with their two young kids to Stepford, Conn., "to get away from the stress," and Joanna agrees. She had been way too busy to pay much attention to family (in fact she seems to have ignored them outright) and tells herself that this is the chance to make it up to them.

Stepford turns out to be all that real-estate agent and general community greeter Claire (Glenn Close) promises it to be and then some ("Everything is soooo perfect here!" she says with a beatific smile). Inside this exclusive gated community all the women are serene in floral chiffon, perfectly coiffed and madeup. Their houses are huge, immaculate mansions; the lawns are as trim as Astro-Turf. For some reason the husbands are drab and dumpy, but their beautiful wives are slavishly devoted, especially Claire to Mike (Christopher Walken), her husband and the town leader.

Joanna is spooked by it all and hooks up with best-seller author Bobbi (Bette Midler) and gay decorator Roger (Roger Bart), who had also just moved out from N.Y. In the meantime, Walter is playing golf with Stepford's other menfolk and comes home extolling the virtues of wealthy American suburbia to an appalled Joanna. "Stop wearing black honey," he tells her. "Black is for workaholic, castrating bitches from Manhattan."

The movie is full of zingers like this. Regretfully, the spots of laughter are fleeting. In between, we must contend with the story in which nothing and no one has a shred of credibility and the artifice/preservatives factor is a bit much, even for Stepford standards. The whole point of the original "Stepford Wives" (and to a large extent, the book) was the contrast between the phony, plasticine world of Stepford and the get-real attitude of Joanna and her family. But with Kidman looking the way she does, enhanced by a gloss coating her in every frame, well it just gets harder to root for her as the fighter against Stepfordization. With or without the black threads, she seems like the most Stepford-esque of all, and when she complains about how "the women are all so perfect here I feel alienated" the urge to lean over and say, "Uh, excuse me?" becomes overwhelming.

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