Ostensibly a remake of a '70s film, "The Stepford Wives" shows the danger of taking the story out of the '70s but not taking the '70s out of the story.
Ira Levin's original novel, turned into a film by writer William Goldman and director Bryan Forbes in 1975, drew on two sources of unease creeping through society. One was a generalized uncertainty about the coming of this new thing called feminism. Using a thriller writer's seriously twisted moral imagination, creepiness-specialist Levin (who wrote "Rosemary's Baby") fashioned and Goldman amplified a work about the ultimate male backlash to the movement, in which the women were quietly and maliciously replaced by animatronic sex dolls who embodied the Playboy philosophy's ultimate female: a tart in bed, a gourmet in the kitchen, a slave in all other situations.
And at the same time there was the urban hipster's subtle fear of the suburbs, those bland, perky, primary-colored Columbias and Restons rising on the horizon where everybody seemed to be having such a good time at mandatory volleyball practice every Tuesday. Oooo, scary stuff, man.
It wasn't very good. So why remake it? Beats me, but there's even less to the story now than there was. It feels curiously unmoored in time, disconnected from anything in today's society. That's because feminism is here to stay, as every man jack of us knows, and arguing about it -- or lashing back -- is pointless. Game, set, match. So the movie feels like a fossil, dead frozen bone, so extinct you forget why it existed in the first place.
And the city-suburb axis has pretty much vanished from the film, which is also too bad because it hasn't vanished from society, though in admitting that I know the guys are going to tease the heck out of me at volleyball next Tuesday.
Evidently the hope was to jigger the tone, to move it from Levin-Goldman's cold, icky dread and paranoia, to something more broadly comical and satirical. In the history of Hollywood bad decisions, this one's up there with the same genius who tried to make Brian Bosworth a star.
As it plays out on-screen, under black comedy specialist Frank Oz's direction, the movie is surprisingly simple. It hasn't a single decent wrinkle. None of it appears to be well thought out, or thought through, and it's consequently never remotely believable. Yet at the same time it lacks the finesse to go the other direction by creating an alternative comic reality. It's neither here nor there; it's nowhere.
The first two minutes are the best. We're introduced to Nicole Kidman in the role Katharine Ross famously played, though Ross was a housewife. Kidman's Joanna is the president of a Fox-like TV network that specializes in sleazy reality shows, and we meet her, promisingly, at an affiliate convention as she introduces new programming. Only in this one instance do the filmmakers seem fully engaged, as they hammer out fantasy exaggerations of reality shows, including a work of genius called "I Can Do Better" in which dreary couples are treated to a week of sex with beautiful people, then asked whether they want to stay with their spouses. Anyhow, that's the Joanna I'd like to know better, and a movie following her crass adventures in yet-crazier reality TV-land might be hysterical. It might also be timely.
But no. Implausibly, she's fired, has a breakdown and goes with hubby Walter (unthreatening, unremarkable Matthew Broderick) to the luxurious gated Connecticut community of Stepford, where all the wives are above average, if your idea of average is a Playboy Playmate in June of 1975. There's almost no mystery, no suspense, no narrative drive. The movie yields its secrets without the slightest attempt at a tease; it just marches straightforwardly from plot point to plot point, revealing without wit or humor that Christopher Walken is the genius behind the computerization of the wives (all of whom are statuesque but without meaningful personality) while his wifey, Glenn Close, is doing her best delusional Norma Desmond impersonation.
To some degree the movie loves its own hypocrisy. It clearly disapproves of implanting microchips in women's brains to turn them docile -- that would be bad, bad, bad -- yet it gooses what little comic energy it has out of two such transformations. Both Bette Midler's pushy Bobbi Markowitz and Roger Bart's snippy, gay Roger Bannister get theirs, and the movie luxuriates in their reduction to cheery, irony-free, sarcasm-innocent amoebas. It even enjoys the reduction of Kidman to a walking Barbie doll at one point, while pretending to be horrified.
You keep waiting for the movie to turn into something, to surprise with a joke or a production design (it's quite ugly) or a line or a spurt of energy. But it stays the same, throughout; it seems to have been directed by a man with a computer chip for banality implanted in his brain.
The Stepford Wives (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild violence and unpleasant implications.