Tuesday, Oct 25, 2016
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Movie review: The Stepford Wives ***

What kind of work has been done to the wives of Stepford has been the subject of much debate. Back in 1972, when Ira Levin's novel, The Stepford Wives, became a trashy beach classic, what had been done was quite obvious (and thought to be quite clever): Levin, the P.T. Barnum of pop culture plastic surgeons (who'd already written the novel Rosemary's Baby), graphed the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that eerie 1956 sci-fi parable about conformity, to the consciousness raising of the early 1970s women's lib movement. The alien pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers could turn entire communities into vegetables.

But Levin's Stepford Wives gave that a twist: Threatened by the women's movement, the nerdy hubbies of an exclusive Connecticut suburb transform their wives into complacent, subservient robots. The movie, three years later, was faithful and stiff, but as rhetoric and a cautionary tale (and a perverse idea), it's never gone away. "Stepford" became an adjective, describing a cheery conformity. The biggest problem was Katherine Ross who played a photographer - ah, see her creativity is being snuffed out! - with such placidity and generic poise that rendering her a robot seemed redundant. When a film isn't brave enough to cast a woman who can be charismatic, who can be her own woman, what does it matter if she becomes a robot? What is in danger of being lost?

Nearly 30 years later here's a new Stepford Wives that takes the gains of feminism for granted - what's to be lost is quite a lot. But the thought of losing those gains is now so insane the story's become a dark comedy (which is always what it was at heart anyway). It's directed by Frank Oz and scripted by the very funny writer Paul Rudnick, and for all the talk of the nips and tucks applied to the film in post-production, it has exactly the physique this creepy allegory always promised. It's not much as a thriller, but it's an intriguing and often subversive comedy that's eventually a little routine and unfocused to really cut deep. All of which, though, I hear you, is surprising: Oz's The Stepford Wives, so far, had been labeled the most spectacular, well-publicized hatchet job in months, and big names like Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler would go down with it.

Don't buy any of that.

This Stepford Wives might ironically become yet another case of studio Stepfordization: a provocative, lively premise neutered of its sharpest satire and rendered docile and harmless. But for the first half, the laughs are there. The harshest work, quite obviously, has been applied to Kidman - smartly given a personality to lose, and when it goes out the window, so goes the rest of the movie. She's a television network president, a real steely professional, and Kidman plays her with the demented grin of those masters of their universe who destroy lives, then spin them into triumph-over-adversity-ish miniseries. Just after she loses her job and hubby Matthew Broderick moves them out to Stepford to start again, he poses a question to her: Joanna, do you really want to wear black 24 hours a day and just be another one of those high-powered, neurotic Manhattan careerists?

"Since I was a little girl."

Oz and Rudnick, who previously teamed for the snappy Kevin Kline comedy In & Out, have a pointed, catty snobbishness that's fun to listen to and more at home with the details than the big picture. Which is another way of saying The Stepford Wives comes to life in flashes and then dies quickly and then comes to life, etc., etc. They start with the battle of the sexes. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, both wonderful, are like maniacal cruise directors committed to keeping the girls doing girl stuff and the guys smoking stogies. Close, in particular, suggests Betty Crocker gone nuts.

But most interesting is how this new Stepford Wives finds its biggest inspiration not in feminist theory or gender roles or even the married life. Oz and Rudnick have a lot more they want to say about this country's ever-widening social gap, namely between liberals and conservatives - between city sophisticates and soccer moms. They get some terrific gags out of Joanna, head to toe in black, moping through a red-white-and-blue Fourth of July picnic, horrified at the fresh baked cobbler. There she meets Midler, who plays a relocated Manhattan author equally repulsed at these rampant displays of family values. "People love each other outside New York!" she snaps with astonishment.

Rudnick has fun exploring the Stepford premise as if it's an episode of Sex and the City, including a glimpse into a Stepford book club. (This month's selection: Christmas Keepsakes and Collectibles, to the horror of Kidman, who proposes a weighty presidential biography.) That kind of snark gets eventually abandoned for "Perfection doesn't work" messages that smack of studio interference (and post-test screening alterations). But the soul of the film and Rudnick's mouthpiece is Roger, marvelously played by Roger Bart. He's half a gay couple - the "wife" half, and in danger of being turned by his partner into a gay Republican. Bart is so flamboyant and in love with the campiness of Stepford, you fear his conversion more than anything else in The Stepford Wives - and when Kidman finds Roger's framed Orlando Bloom photo and Viggo Mortensen T-shirt in the trash, you shiver.

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