Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Stepford Wives

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE STEPFORD WIVES

6/10

USA 2004 : Frank OZ : 93 mins

When the highflying career of Manhattan TV executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) takes an abrupt nosedive, she suffers a nervous breakdown. Keen to remove Joanna from the pressures of big-city life, her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick) decides to relocate to the affluent Connecticut community of Stepford. The family are effusively welcomed by local queen bee Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), but Joanna soon notices something odd about the place: the Stepford women are uniformly beautiful bimbos, happily subservient to their nerdish husbands. Teaming up with fellow a pair of equally-bemused newcomer/outsiders – slobby writer Bobbi (Bette Midler) and gay architect Roger (Roger Bart) – Joanna discovers what has happened to the Stepford wives, and realises that she herself may be next…

Though hysterically panned by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, The Stepford Wives – while flawed – doesn’t deserve its status among 2004’s worst-reviewed releases. It’s the latest victim of an increasingly familiar syndrome whereby any remade movie is instantly elevated to “classic” status, placed on a pedestal which is then deployed to deliver a gleeful battering to the new version. The 1975 adaptation of Ira Levin’s short novel had a lot going for it, not least the stupendous lead performance by the Katharine Ross – with able backup from Paula Prentiss in the ‘Midler’ role.

Bette Midler - after reading The Stepford Wives reviews?But a “classic” it most certainly wasn’t – largely thanks to the lifeless direction by Bryan Forbes, the Londoner an odd choice for such an explicitly American subject. Frank Oz may have been born in Britain (Hereford, 1944) but shares little else in common with Forbes other than than both changed their names for their acting careers (Oz was originally ‘Oznowicz’; Forbes ‘John Clarke’), and both directed movies of The Stepford Wives.

Resident in Belgium until the age of five, Oz moved with his family to the US where he later achieved a kind of immortality as the voice of both Miss Piggy and Yoda, while also directing such mid-level hits as In & Out (1997). Perhaps keen to avoid Forbes’s underwhelming approach to Stepford, Oz goes too far the other way: everything is slightly but distractingly amped-up and over-emphatic, especially the intrusive score (‘music supervisor’ Randall Poster, music by David Arnold) and the lighting. No particular individual is credited on the latter front, so let’s blame cinematographer Rob Hahn for the shadows which are always falling in odd ways over the characters’ faces.

Other visual contributions (from costumer In & Out costumer Ann Roth, production designer Jackson De Govia, art director Peter Rogness and set decorator Debra Schutt) are also decidedly OTT – but this is entirely in keeping with the unbridled camp that characterises the whole affair, right from the excellent opening titles featuring jawdropping clips from fifties adverts. The uber-camp factor we can presumably chiefly credit scriptwriter Paul Rudnick – who also wrote In & Out, following it up with 2000’s flop biopic Isn’t She Great (Midler as Jacqueline Susann), but is best known for the catty magazine column he writes for Premiere as ‘Libby Gelman-Waxner’.

His Stepford script doesn’t hang together very well, and Rudnick simply isn’t up to the very tricky task of combining politically-tinged post-feminist (and post-Far From Heaven) satire with belly-laughs and sci-fi horror. One-liners are much more his forte, and there are just enough decent “zingers” to make the film a reasonably enjoyable night-out-at-the-pictures entertainment. Most of these go to Bart, though he scores his biggest laughs via his awestruck facial reactions to Close’s delirious characterisation of Claire. Because while Kidman has never been much cop at comedy, the much more versatile Close injects sufficient manic energy to keep the whole rickety vehicle barrelling along.

Christopher Walken, however, has rather less to do as her shadowy husband Mike, and isn’t as creepy or memorable a villain as Patrick O’Neal’s Dale Coba from the 1975 version. That said, the two characters turn out to be far from exact match-ups: Rudnick and Oz build up to the same downbeat finale as the original, then (in a ploy reminiscent of George Sluizer’s Hollywood remake of his own The Vanishing) cobble on an invented ten-minute coda in which Joanna gets her revenge and the truth about the Wellingtons is revealed.

As has been widely noted, this ending doesn’t tie in with what’s gone before, and is reportedly the consequence of disastrous test screenings and hastily-arranged reshoots. The ‘operation’ to ‘save’ the film is a botch-job, with the stitching clearly visible. But the coda itself has enough droll wit to make its addition worthwhile – and does afford Close the opportunity for one last great Joan Crawford-on-steroids blow-out which, like the picture itself, makes no sense in retrospect but is quite entertaining while it’s going on.

1st August, 2004
(seen 22nd July : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

by Neil Young