The Stepford Wives, a comic remake of the 1972 Ira Levin bestseller, directed by Frank Oz from Paul Rudnick’s script, is almost desperate to show it gets its own point. What’s funny is that the joke—Invasion of the Body Snatchers reconfigured as anti-feminist backlash—was scarcely fresh when Bryan Forbes shot the first movie version nearly 30 years ago.
A troubled production, beset by rumored retakes and on-set discord, the new model Stepford is stylishly retro in design and a trim 90 minutes in length. It has two speeds—obvious and more so. In recounting the tale of an urban überfrau (Nicole Kidman) who relocates with her family to a postcard-perfect Connecticut commuter town and discovers a brave new world of domesticated fembots, the movie shifts uneasily from satire to thriller to blatant didacticism: The 2004 Stepford wife is not only servant, sex doll, and cupcake baker but, as the epitome of unpaid household labor, also a cash machine with tits. Not that the movie is any more human. Basically, it’s a delivery system for Rudnick’s one-liners. (The best of these are given to Bette Midler’s pushy Jewish malcontent and Roger Bart’s snarky gay spouse—reconfigured characters who allow the screenwriter to crack wise from his two perspectives.)
Thanks to the novel, the movie, and its three made-for-TV sequels, the term “Stepford wife” has entered the American language—most often, and misleadingly, used to characterize either Martha Stewart or the nation’s first lady du jour (excepting Hillary Rodham Clinton who, when not standing by her man, was an anti–Stepford wife). It’s surprising that the monstrously perky realtor (Glenn Close) who acts as Stepford’s demonic cheerleader isn’t based on Stewart, but given that “Stepford” itself has become a term for robotically conformist, as in Stepford candidate, Stepford Republican, and Stepford Democrat (meaning a closet Republican), it’s depressing that Rudnick has so little to add to the mythos.
Still, Stepford cinema as The Stepford Wives may be, it’s appropriate that Paramount refused to change its opening from the day of Ronald Reagan’s funeral—how better to celebrate the first holiday of Stepford Nation?