Arriving in theaters at around the height of the women's liberation movement, 1975's The Stepford Wives wasn't a very good movie. Nevertheless, it managed to lodge itself in the public consciousness as a cautionary tale about what men were really looking for in a wife "- servitude with a smile, Donna Reed in an apron. Though clumsily made, the movie worked as social satire: American men, those beasts, took it on the chin, but so did American women who'd succumbed to that whole middle-class, Beaver Cleaver, it-came-from-the-'50s life espoused by television. But it wasn't entirely clear whether this was supposed to be seen as something men did to women or something women did to themselves. Maybe that's why "Stepford wife" has stuck around so long as a social category. There's always going to be somebody who wants to stay home and bake chocolate-chip cookies. What changes is how society feels about that.
In 1975, judging by The Stepford Wives, society was slightly horrified, because the movie, despite its flaws, gave off a chill. In 2004, judging by the new and improved Stepford Wives starring Nicole Kidman, society is slightly amused. What was once a thriller has become a comedy "- a dark comedy, to be sure, but an awfully light one. I can imagine all sorts of reasons to remake The Stepford Wives and all sorts of ways to do it. But director Frank Oz and scriptwriter Paul Rudnick haven't pursued any of my ideas, those beasts. Instead, they've created a spoof that all but shouts from the rooftops, "Don't take me seriously." Maybe women have it so good these days that the very notion of being turned into a domestic slave can only be played for laughs. But what about all those women who feel they have to be Martha Stewart at home and Martha Stewart at the office? Aren't they ripe for satire, Stepford's stepchildren?
When the movie opens, Kidman's Joanna Eberhart is a fiendishly successful television executive who's just unveiled her new reality show, "I Can Do Better," wherein couples holed up at a tropical resort sample an assortment of male and female prostitutes, then decide whether to cast off the ol' ball and chain. (Excuse me, but didn't Fox get there first with "Temptation Island"?) A disappointed husband shows up with a gun, causing Joanna to lose both her job and her mind. Then we're off to Stepford, now a gated community nestled in the Connecticut woods, the houses as demurely ostentatious as the housewives. For some reason, the wives haven't been given much of a makeover since their last outing; they still look like they're attending a celestial garden party. But their lips are looser this time around. Complimenting Joanna's husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) on the slacks he's wearing, one of them eyeballs his crotch and says, "Now I know why they call it Banana Republic."
The movie cruises along in the early going, buoyed by Rudnick's catty dialogue and by the performances of Bette Midler and Roger Bart as other newcomers to Stepford. (Which is to say, they haven't been lobotomized and robotized.) Midler is Bobbie Markovitz, Stepford's token Jew, and Bart is Roger Bannister, Stepford's token gay. And along with Kidman, these two hurl comic darts at Stepford's country-club facades. But then Kidman's Joanna starts dressing in pastels and baking hundreds of cupcakes; she wants to be a Stepford wife, even before she knows exactly what it means. In the meantime, down at the Men's Association, Walter's being groomed for full-fledged membership in Stepford's patriarchal utopia by Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), husband of Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), who seems just a little bit more crazily perfect "- or is it perfectly crazy? "- than the rest of the wives.
The men of Stepford are all wimps who've had it up to here with being outdone by their wives. And the women, it turns out, are all former CEOs who threw everything at their careers, nothing at their families. "Maybe I've made all the wrong decisions," Joanna says while recovering from her nervous breakdown, and I almost cringed when I heard that line. Why can't a woman choose career over family? And why does Joanna seem more like a robot before she gets to Stepford? The ideological underpinnings of The Stepford Wives have always been a little slippery, but in this version they seem to have slipped all the way over to the other side. Now, the blandness and blondness of suburbia is something women impose on themselves. They want to return to the good ol' days, when happiness was a spotless kitchen. In its awkward way, the original Stepford Wives was a feminist movie. This one seems part of the backlash.