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Photograph by Andrew Schwartz

Housewives on the Verge: Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler discover a dark side to wedded bliss in 'The Stepford Wives.'


'The Stepford Wives' gives the dead horse of the 1950s a resounding kick

By Richard von Busack

WITH Nicole Kidman making the "shhh" sign from billboards—always an adorable gesture—you'd think that there was a secret imbedded in The Stepford Wives. But the secret is well and fully blown during the first 30 minutes of Frank Oz's indelicate remake of the 1975 original.

Kidman is always at her best in uncanny material, but she isn't subversive in curls here. She plays Joanna Eberhart, a lethal TV executive who dresses as severely as a member of Kraftwerk, complete with Prussian coiffure (it's a bad-hair movie). After being fired from her lofty position, Joanna cracks up. She comes to in the gated community of Stepford, Conn., where her long-suffering husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), has decided to take her to recover.

In Stepford, a Martha Stewart virus has laid the population low. The women—Glenn Close plays the smiling queen bee of the community—are gracious, crinoline-clad and addicted to housework and shopping. The men have a mansion to retreat to, a Bohemian Grove-like Stepford Men's Association (their totem animal is a crowing cock, instead of the Boho's owl). They recline in leather armchairs, smoking cigars underneath tusked and antlered trophy heads. Under the leadership of the unofficial president Mike (Christopher Walken), they plan on remaking the world's women in the model of the wives of Stepford.

For a long time, Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) has demonstrated a reliable, snappy wit, a flair for catty writing. As a result, Bette Midler is funny as a slovenly Jewish novelist who somehow ended up in Stepford. Midler gets to go off like a bomb during an intensive discussion of Christmas ornaments. And the overpowering Midler really understands the expressionist style of acting for her horror scene after she's transformed. (I'm not telling a secret; it's in the previews.)

But what I don't think Rudnick got was how to make husbands and wives work together onscreen. Midler's character is married to Jon Lovitz—why would a Jon Lovitz character want a frilly wife? Rudnick has little interest in the children supposedly holding Walter and Joanna together.

Broderick plays emasculated very well—he has a bad hair cut, too, a premature comb-over. But when he and Kidman have to stand and proclaim their love for one another, on the verge of descending into some steaming hell pit through a trap door, like the doomed leads in an opera, it's kind of contemptible.

Clumsy director Oz helped himself to a few key scenes from the original film—the moment when the black, hollow eyes of a replicant pop open, for instance. (The joke in the original—unacceptable in these PG days—is that Katharine Ross had just enough time to register that her replacement had plastic Playboy boobs, right before the unholy thing killed her.) Oz has also included the 1975 version's supermarket ballet, where the zombies with shopping carts drift like flotsam through the grocery aisles.

The working world has become so cutthroat and exhausting that today's popular magazines can get away with cover stories about women leaving the career track for a life at home, cooking and raising kids. Who pays for it all? That's a question too tough for such softball retrograde articles. We can guess women who work at Wal-Mart won't be part of the throng leaving the office for home.

There must be something seductive about the fantasy of dropping out to be a full-time mommy; there are yards of books and endless hours of television about it. I wish Oz and Rudnick had got at that part of the fantasy—how Stepford awoke a longing in Joanna that she'd previously choked down—and then punished her by giving her her wish.

Moreover, I wish this updating had been a real updating: that Stepford hadn't been just a living museum of 1955 but rather the glutted and gorgeous upper-class suburbia of today, rich in a way today's suburban Connecticut (or Diablo Valley, say) is. The temptation to excess could have been the Stepford trapdoor.

The filmmakers hint at this a little in shots of kitchen spreads that look like the aftermath of a cornucopia explosion. The movie never fails on the easy laughs of décor and clothing. Broderick wears a pink Izod shirt that practically earns a chortle on its own, and the colors subtly clash throughout the movie, enough to keep the nerves a little tweaked. (One good joke on color is a palatial "gray room" Joanna is shown when she first comes to Stepford; it has the charm of a hotel conference center.)

But rather than giving the materialism and backlash anti-feminism of today a good kick, the team went after the '50s. It's like shooting a lion-skin rug and calling yourself Ernest Hemingway.

The Stepford Wives (PG-13; 90 min.), directed by Frank Oz, written by Paul Rudnick, photographed by Rob Hahn and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler, plays valleywide.

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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