The Stepford Wives (2004)

The bland, robotic replacement
★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2004
Director: 
Frank Oz
Starring: 
Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken
The Setup: 
Remake of the well-known 70s satire as a comedy.
Discussion: 

Having read the original novel of this, I entered a mini-Stepford obsession. I watched the original film, after which I found my need to see this horrid remake (which I had suffered through in the theater) quite lessened. But see it I must, and I even listened to the director commentary, hoping he would spill some secrets about what went so wrong. He's pretty cagey, but ultimately we learn it was the typical poor test screenings, reshoots, numerous edits, whole sequences thrown out, etc. Which is in addition to the fact that it is massively misconceived from the start, and the people making it, let's just say, have not YET revealed themselves to be geniuses.

So Paul Rudnick, writer of In and Out and Jeffery, who is gay and seem to think himself exceedingly clever and amusing, decided that it is simply not possible to regard the premise of the original novel seriously anymore, and that a remake of this film would have to be a comedy that enlarges on the camp of the first. The film begins with a nice credit sequence that shows 50s films showcasing technology that helps housewives create the perfect home. It turns out to be the best, most coherent statement the movie has to make, and we learn from the commentary that it was a last-second replacement for the opening credits as director Frank Oz originally conceived them. Then we join a large presentation of a television network, and meet Nicole Kidman as Joanna Eberhart, president of the network. She previews two shows the network has coming up, one a "battle of the sexes" quiz show in which we see a woman easily best her husband in answering questions. Then there's a reality show called "I Can Do Better," in which they send a married couple to an island, where they spend a week, separately, with sexual hotties. The man rejects his stripper girlfriend and decides to stay with his wife, while the wife declares the phrase of the title and chooses to stay with her porn star boyfriend(s). Its actually fairly spot-on and one of the better concepts of the film. Then the husband from the show shows up at the presentation, and tries to shoot Joanna for ruining his life.

She goes upstairs and is fired. It seems that the husband killed his whole family before coming for Joanna, her entire roster of shows is being dropped, and she has become a liability. We next see her in a hospital, where a bit of expository dialogue quickly informs us she has been sent after having a nervous collapse. Then, boom, they decide to move to Stepford. Her husband Walter is played by Matthew Broderick, who, the commentary tells us, Joanna originally learned was having an affair just after being fired. Why the movie would want to set out characters up as wholly despicable at the start is... something we'll come back to.

So they move to Stepford, where they meet uber-chipper Glenn Close as Claire. Joanna goes to bed with the house empty and seemingly wakes to find it fully furnished (I thought it might end up being a dream sequence at first), and not only do you wonder where all that furniture came from without her knowledge, but who the fuck picked THAT shit out? It's all massive, fluffy and floral, while Joanna is still being presented as a sleek career-woman New Yorker who wears only black, so you have to wonder how all this elaborate decorating possibly came to be.

Joanna wears her sleek black ensemble to this country dance kind of thing, where she first encounters the other Stepford wives. She soon enough meets Better Midler as Bobbie, famous author, and Roger Bart as Roger, gay famous architect. I was surprised that they all had to be not just successful, but MASSIVE successes in their fields (while at the same time never working). I think Rudnick's original concept--which proves to be more than a little banal and ends up missing the point--is that all these powerful people (especially women but now also including gay men) are being disempowered. I say it misses the point because the original, and still potent idea, is that you don't have to be a powerful woman for men to want to disempower you, you just have to be a human woman, with her own thoughts and ideas. THAT is the problem. Rudnick's conception is ye olde cliche about men being afraid of powerful women, in which power CAN ONLY mean powerful in terms of career and money. It is an "idea" of comparable depth to a Cosmo headline and has the unfortunate side effect of conveying, once again, that anyone who is not a well-known success in their field is simply not worth knowing.

And then there's the inclusion of Roger. You know I myself am gay and so I am not objecting to Roger's inclusion on anti-gay grounds, but it does dilute the point of the movie--even this, reconceived version--which is supposed to be about WOMEN. Furthermore, you know the straight criticism that certain gay people have to reframe everything as being ABOUT GAYS and then shove it in straights' faces? This movie would be an embodiment of what bothers them. It has the sense that ANY gay visibility is a positive thing, even if it torpedoes the point of the film, as well as equating gay and women's issues in a way that isn't really welcome to either party. Roger's lover Jerry is made uncomfortable by how flamboyant Roger is, and wants him to tone it down and act more "manly." Which has nothing really to do with men wanting to keep women in domesticated servant roles, but Rudnick saw an opportunity to insert a hot-button issue, and shoved it in.

Meanwhile Walter is upbraiding Joanna for being a focused career woman who is too controlling, and poof, out of the blue, threatens to end the marriage. She realizes she has been too focused on her career, and the next day tries to make a go of the Stepford way. She, Bobbie and Roger are now instant fast friends. They end up in another woman's house, and hear her upstairs having loud sex with her husband, a scene from the first film, not the novel. Roger then finds a remote control with the woman's name on it, and we see her walk in forward and reverse as he presses buttons, with another button making her breasts inflate and deflate. Similarly, at the men's association, Walter is shown a woman who dispenses cash like an ATM. Cute, right? Unfortunately this is the content that will be directly contradicted by the tacked-on ending.

SPOILERS > > >
Roger is the first of the group to be transformed. Bobbie and Joanna find to their horror that he's thrown out all of his designer clothes, and soon see that he is running for Senate, and now looks about as straight and boring as any Senatorial candidate might. Now Joanna is suspicious, and tells Walter she's picking the kids up from camp (is THAT where they've vanished to?) and leaving Stepford "With or without you." Wow, these people sure do have a fraught marriage, threatening to leave each other every other day. Not really a get-through-the-tough-times-and-work-it-out kind of marriage, huh? Joanna ends up at the men's association in the rain, and here we see that the rotunda it is houses in is the exact same setting as the same scene from the first film. She is confronted by all the men, including Walter, who gives a speech about being emasculated by her power. We're supposed to tut-tut that he should feel this way, despite the fact that the rest of the movie has shown her to be a pretty awful person, and given evidence to his characterization of her as unsupportive and barely caring (she'd just threatened to dissolve the marriage at the drop of a hat, right?)

There before her is the robot Joanna, ready for use. She had previously found the remote control meant for her, and seen that all the women in town used to be powerful heads of companies, now all made robots. There is a way in which the this movie's focus only on powerful women--power cast exclusively as business success, not being a self-actualized person who may not have achieved monetary success--also works again the point of the movie, which is that men want to control any woman, not just ones who are heads of companies. Anyway, Joanna can't believe Walter would do this to her, Walter says "Yeah, pretty much," and we see them descend into the lab below. The scene fades out and we now see a recreation of the first film's famous ending, in which we see a vacant Joanna shopping in the supermarket, and assume that she's a robot. Then you notice that the whole plot of the first film has been condensed into the first hour here, and there's still a half hour of all new ending left.

Oh, by the way, before this, Joanna has gone to Bobbie's and discovered that she, too, is now a robot. On the deleted scenes is a much longer version of this scene, in which Bobbie starts malfunctioning, and it is made absolutely clear that there is nothing human about Bobbie's body anymore. She has a fridge in her belly, a number of kitchen tools that come out of her fingers, and her feet transform into a lawn mower. This was cut because it contradicts the new ending, even though there's plenty they left in the film (the ATM gag, the inflatable breasts, and Joanna seeing her robot replacement) which also contradicts it.

So at the end there's a big party with all present. Walter sneaks downstairs and starts deactivating the women one by one, and we see a graphic showing us that they are all still real women, just with microchips in their brains. Walter deactivated the chips, and they're all back to normal! So those things that clearly showed them all to be robots? Don't mind all that, thank you very much. And Walter, well I guess he's a nice, centered guy after all. Really, no one's ever really a bad PERSON. Then it is revealed that Christopher Walken, Claire's husband and presumed mastermind of the whole operation, is actually a robot created by Claire, who was herself the powerful head of a corporation. You see, there really is NO ONE who is not the head of a corporation! Turns out SHE did it all, because she wants to retain the old values where women are subservient to men. So wait a minute, NONE of this is about men wanting to control women, it's all about women doing it to each other? Powful women wanting to take down other powerful women? And the men's only crime is that they go along with it? That's an interesting statement.

There's a last little thing where Joanna, Bobbie and Roger are on Larry King (when in doubt, throw in a pop culture reference!) where they've all turned their experience into--you'll never guess!--more career success! You see, because that's really ALL there is. There is NO other kind of power but monetary power. Then there's a final scene in which we see that now the MEN are all in the grocery store, being ordered around by women! You see, THAT'S the answer! Not that men and women should find equitable ways to share power, but that women should order MEN around! You go, girl!
< < < SPOILERS END

Yes, this became worse through reshoots and edits, but the fact is it was doomed from the start. The concept at its heart is poisoned. Rudnick seems to think that the point of the original is now laughable, but why? Does he think men would no longer like women to just shut up and serve them? On the commentary, Oz sums it up that "The men are twits. They're scared to death of powerful women." But the idea that they are not engaging with is that the men are NOT twits, and are very consciously, very deliberately trying to disempower women. The idea both Oz and Rudnick seem unable to really engage with is that the men ACTUALLY DO want the women to be robots. Sure, you might have to alter the concept to bring it up to date--nowadays you might have a very scathing satire about how women voluntarily opt to become robots, and we see their careers and attractiveness to men skyrocket--but the project here is seemingly to laugh at the original. If that's your project, however, the onus is on you to prove that what you've come up with is smarter, which is where this movie resolutely fails.

That's really enough said, but what the hell, let's hammer on this movie some more. WHAT is the idea with these characters? Joanna is a despicable human being at the beginning, and she's a despicable human being at the end. Okay, so she's learned that everything doesn't have to be perfect. Well, anyone with a brain knew that already. Couldn't she just have watched an episode of Oprah to figure that out? Walter's crime at the beginning is that he dares to be resentful about being steamrollered by his wife's ignoring her husband and family in favor of her career, then he wants to disempower his wife, but the movie even chickens out on that. We can't have anyone in this movie not be a NICE PERSON. A very telling thing in the commentary is that there was originally a scene of Walter having second thoughts about turning Joanna into a robot, but Oz describes taking it out because Walter had already been shown agreeing to it, and this would contradict that. Well no, it would actually show that Walter is a normal person who waffles and has second thoughts. You can see the scene in the deleted scenes, and it's not like it would have even made Walter a complex character, it just would have allowed a slight touch of shading. But even that much shading cannot be allowed! One has to wonder at a movie about turning people into robots that consciously refuses to let its human characters have more than one dimension.

This movie is STUPID. Even before all the reshoots and edits, it was a flat-out STUPID concept, and not much better can be supposed about the people that created it (excepting the cast, who survive fine). This is one of those things created by people who have lost all touch with a reality that is not mediated by money and celebrity. It is just plain dumb.

Should you watch it: 

Not unless you want to laugh at it, or have seen the original and want to see this travesty in comparison.

RELATED MOVIES:
THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975) is the original, which plays the story straight, and is very clunky and campy, but still works.