The Stepford Wives (2004) from JK

I first saw the original “Stepford Wives” in 1975, almost by accident.  I was killing time before a business appointment and I saw Katherine Ross’s name next to “The Stepford Wives” on a theater marquee. Now, I would see Katherine Ross in anything and I found myself in line, mesmerized, money in hand, buying a ticket. I knew only vaguely that Ira Levin had written the book, so I didn’t know the story.  It turned out that not knowing the story helped the enjoyment of spending an hour and a half watching Katherine Ross.  So I had the best of everything. Ah, those simpler times, when I wore a younger man’s clothes.  The film offered poignancy, character, mystery, and a lawyer as the bad guy. 

I’ll confess I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the re-make because re-makes seldom work.  Sure, a few have clicked, but only a few. How can we re-make “Dracula”?  Or “High Noon”?  What about the infamous proposed Affleck/J-Lo remake of "Casablanca"? When we do them again, we'll have to make them with modern methods, which runs the risk of destroying the simple film virtues that made big hits of the originals.  The “improvements” destroy the magic. Imagine Rick Blaine surrounded by CGI. While the original version of “The Stepford Wives” was made only thirty (30!) years ago, it can be compared to the others in that its dated methods made the movie a success.

Since the Stepford story - the wives of Stepford are programmed to serve their husbands - is now well known, Paul Rudnick’s script had to take a different tack from the original. But we’re not sure what he intended.  Is it Farce? No, not exactly.  Satire?  Well, sometimes.  Humor?  Seldom, but in a few selected spots.  Mystery?  A good twist at the end.  Emotional drama?  Hardly.  The truth is the script is all over the place and nowhere. 

It begins with some promising scenes and, as we watch the start, we think we’re going to like it. A reality show winner sincerely tells us that all her life she has had sex with only one man - and that it was usually Harry.

But the film goes down hill from there. 

A surfeit of highly stylized sight gags and obvious lines causes the film to sag in the middle to near hopelessness before it rises to a clever ending.  (That’s the first ending - the one before the surprise second ending, which is just before the tedious third ending.)  In getting to the welcomed finish, we travel through a lot of uneven territory, which is a way of saying some scenes work and some don’t, some are funny and some are un-funny. An un-funny scene is like a scene that doesn’t work, except you wish it would eclipse itself immediately. There are plenty of those wishes. 

What went wrong?  Well, the industry wag is that plenty went wrong. It is said that director Frank Oz, a laid back kind of guy for a director, lost control of the film and the film lost its direction. First, it was to be a three month shoot, but it took nearly eight months. Big names like Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Jon Lovitz, Glenn Close, and Christopher Walken, to mention a few, don’t like staying after school. There were story changes, re-staging, script changes and re-shoots. With all the changes, the stars soon wanted to make their own changes. I’m told that at least three of them threatened more than once to walk away, even after substantial amounts of footage were completed and edited. 

The film would be better if we knew more about the marriage of the Kidman and Broderick characters at the start of the film. In fact, the story might have worked if was planted squarely in the marriage, and cultivated there. This would have served two purposes. First, it would have made us care about them. At least a little. Second, the husband's justifications for his actions, currently presented toward the end of the movie, would have helped us in the beginning and through the middle, allowing the humor to develop far more effectively. 



Notes on the performers:

  • I’m wondering if the photographer didn’t like Nicole Kidman; too many angles are unflattering.  And too many scenes looked rushed and uncertain.  Hurried filming? 

  • Matthew Broderick’s performance confirms he is still the kid of yesteryear.  Will he never grow up? 

  • The Lovitz and Midler characters are in the wrong marriage and quite possibly in the wrong Connecticut town.  Midler tried hard but had a lot of bad lines and wore some ridiculous costumes.  No one had a good time. 

  • Chris Walken, who seems to take any role these days, can still sound eerily menacing, saying almost anything and doing almost nothing.  That bad boy is hopelessly but fascinatingly typed. 

  • That leaves Glenn Close poised to steal the show in an acceptable performance. 

“The Stepford Wives” is awarded one and a half Milk Duds.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus two and a quarter stars. James Berardinelli 1.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It opened with a $22 million weekend, far above predictions, against a powerhouse field, but a field in which it Stepford was the only film targeting a female audience. (Three kids' films and the Diesel sci-fi actioner)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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