Extreme Makeover

Cult Classic The Stepford Wives Goes Under the Knife

What does a man want in a wife? Does he look for an independent, equal partner? Or does he want a Mrs. Cleaver/Barbie hybrid, a domestic goddess who lives to make her husband proud?

This is the question at the heart of The Stepford Wives, a remake of the 1975 cult classic. At the time of the original movie, the women’s movement had already taken root. Based on a best-selling novel, the film reflected society’s anxieties about the shifting roles of women.

Having enjoyed the first film, I was skeptical about the remake. To my surprise, I found it a mostly effective movie makeover, though, just like any contestant on The Swan, the final product ends up looking very, very different from the original.

Suburban paradise?
The Stepford Wives
tells the story of Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), a successful TV executive, who has a breakdown when she is unexpectedly fired from her job. Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) moves the family from Manhattan to the ‘burbs, hoping for a simpler life. The town he chooses is Stepford, a picture-pretty burg where the flowers are always in bloom.

It doesn’t take Joanna — or the viewer — long to figure out that there is something strange about Stepford. The women are all long-limbed, beautiful, perpetually smiling. Their conversations never move beyond cooking, crafts, and complimenting their paunchy middle-aged husbands. And the men spend an inordinate amount of time at the Stepford Men’s Association, a Gothic building that is off-limits to their wives. With the help of Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), another newcomer to town, Joanna starts to investigate just why these women are all alike.

Not frightening anymore
It’s hard to say any more without giving away Joanna’s discovery. Anyone who has seen the original movie, of course, knows what is going on in Stepford. That’s precisely why the remake is problematic: how to keep the film engaging when the plot’s Big Secret is already out?

Surprisingly, the screenwriters turned to comedy. Even more surprising…it works. There are a number of terrific one-liners, delivered beautifully by Midler and the endearing Roger Bart, who plays a gay man who has just moved to town with his partner. The eerie realism and sinister tone of the original film is gone, replaced by a campy, over-the-top feeling to the art direction. The new Stepford is a town where the houses are cartoonish with bright colors and extravagant landscapes.

The writers also got inventive with the ending, adding a new Big Secret that will surprise even those who saw the first movie. Unfortunately, this last section of the movie is the weakest. The twist is just too unrealistic, even for this film and the screenplay loses its freshness and devolves into plodding exposition as the characters’ motivations are unfolded.

With her expressive face and intelligent presence, Kidman does a nice job anchoring the film. As her husband, Broderick has a tougher role, largely because the script itself takes a long time to decide whether he is a nice guy or a jerk. Midler is terrific, as always, and the writers took advantage of her presence to slip in a clever little in-joke.

Apples and oranges
So how to compare the two films? If you’re looking for a pseudo-serious, sinister commentary on gender roles, rent the original. In the end, it’s the better movie. But if you’re craving an enjoyable evening of escapist entertainment, make a visit to the new Stepford. It won’t change your life, but its campy color just may brighten your mood.

Rating: Three out of five haloes.