The Stepford Wives

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The Internet Movie Database classifies “The Stepford Wives” as “comedy/drama/thriller,” and I suppose that’s part of the film’s problem: It doesn’t know what it is. It’s a comedy mostly, but not a very funny one, and it’s too broad to be taken seriously as drama, and I don’t recall ever being thrilled by it. Yet it has components of all of those — dialogue that should have been funny, scenes that ought to be dramatic, and elements that might have been thrilling if we didn’t already know all the surprises.

The 1975 film of which it is a remake was altogether serious, about a town where the housewives have been replaced by perfectly obedient and subservient robots. The new film has the same basic story, but plays it for laughs and changes some key plot points. I suppose feminism has come so far since 1975 that the idea of people behaving outrageously sexist is much funnier than it was then. Then, it was still relatively normal for men to expect their wives to stay home and to have their martinis waiting for them after a long day at the office. Now, the protagonist knows immediately that something is wrong when she sees that sort of behavior. “What is this?” she must be thinking. “1975?”

Anyway, she is Joanna Eberhard (Nicole Kidman), a high-powered Manhattan TV executive who has suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to quaint Stepford, Conn., to live a quiet life with her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two little-seen children. Joanna is perplexed by the women in Stepford, who all have old-fashioned hairdos and wear June Cleaver dresses even when they’re working out. The women are all beautiful, too, while their husbands are exceedingly average.

Her only new friends are her two fellow outcasts: Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), a shlumpy author (“I Love You, But Please Die” was her book about her mother) who refuses to assume any traditional female roles; and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), a gay man living in Stepford with his life partner. Joanna, Bobbie and Roger quickly become girlfriends, all suspecting that something odd is going on around here, but wanting to give the Stepford way of life a try, too. Who knows, maybe wearing an apron and baking muffins all day will cure Joanna of the blues.

Wisely, the movie reveals early that the women have been turned into robots. Everyone in the audience knows that, of course, having seen the original, or at least having heard the term “Stepford wife” used in conversation (I’ve seen it used in reference to First Lady Laura Bush more than once).

Ah, but what to do then? The original had Stepford’s secret as a surprise later in the film, so there was suspense and intrigue as Joanna snooped around looking for answers. The 2004 Joanna still snoops, but we already know what she’ll find. The screenplay, by Paul Rudnick (“Isn’t She Great,” “In & Out”), ought to offer us plenty of comedy in the meantime, but instead settles for whimsy punctuated by a few funny moments. Most of those are provided by Broadway’s Roger Bart — ironic, considering an out-and-comfortable gay character doesn’t even belong in the movie, which is all about traditional male and female roles. (I doubt a private community run by conservative, old-fashioned men would let a gay couple move in anyway.)

Several of the performances are fun, particularly in the film’s first half. You’ve got Glenn Close as Stepford’s bubbly matriarch Claire Wellington, Christopher Walken as her husband, and Jon Lovitz playing Bette Midler’s husband. Matthew Broderick is likable as ever — his role was originally for John Cusack, and it suits both men’s natural affability — and even stony Nicole Kidman comes off as personable.

In the second half, much of the fun wears off as the story wears thin. On-set problems between director Frank Oz and various cast members are already legendary, and the film was sent back for re-shoots, which is never a good sign. Plus, the characters get split up for various plot reasons, and thus the banter is gone. Once the movie has to focus on its “thriller” elements, it has absolutely no idea what to do.

C+ (1 hr., 33 min.; PG-13, a couple mild profanities, some overheard sexuality.)

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