The campy delights of The Stepford Wives.

The campy delights of The Stepford Wives.

The campy delights of The Stepford Wives.

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June 10 2004 6:49 PM

My So-Called Wife

The campy delights of The Stepford Wives.

This year's model
This year's model

It's fitting that the remake of TheStepford Wives (Paramount) opens on the national day of mourning for Ronald Reagan, the political leader who made such hay out of fondly invoking the 1950s—before, he once said, we knew we had a race problem and all those other messy social ills. The Ira Levin novel and the subsequent 1975 movie were meant to satirize a patriarchy that would do anything to bring back the days before wives began to work, talk back, or, in '70s parlance, self-actualize. I'm not sure if that '50s never-never land existed (it was at least partly a construct of the government and entertainment industries). But the longing for it was real and powerful enough that feminists could take Levin's outlandish melodrama as a cautionary tale.

I've always been suspicious of Levin: There's a sadistic sexual component in his tales of female victimization that cancels out the feminist thrust and then some. But he was able to get under peoples' skin; and the original film, pedestrian as it was, became a touchstone. Suddenly you heard: "Oh, she's such a Stepford Wife …" Shamed, the so-called domestic goddess had to evolve, finally embracing as a role model the likes of Martha Stewart, a homemaker who could also be a corporate titan.

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The remake is … how can I put this? A desecration? A travesty? Certainly, it's a slapdash sendup. The writer, Paul Rudnick, appears to have concluded that since 1974 we've had so many '50s parodies, horror movies, and even serious deconstructions like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002) that only a raving lunatic could long for the way we supposedly were. This Stepford Wives, directed by Frank Oz, is not just making fun of '50s nostalgia; it's making fun of making fun of '50s nostalgia. It says you can't even take those fantasies seriously enough to critique anymore.

Word of the movie's terribleness began to filter out months ago, and different endings were reportedly shot and tested. The one that's there now is from hunger: It's a miracle that the actors don't turn to the camera and roll their eyes or make little shadow bunnies. Paramount Pictures has not widely screened it for critics: It took considerable ingenuity for me even to get into a preview. And I imagine that audiences who show up this weekend expecting a genuine thriller with horror overtones will want to throw things at the screen, or maybe tar and feather the projectionist.

All of that being the case, I had a fabulous time. Well, I did once I accepted that it was a campfest—a great Provincetown drag show of The Stepford Wives.

Nicole Kidman plays the heroine, Joanna Eberhart, a celebrated women's TV network president who makes reality shows in which men are gleefully emasculated. When one participant—played by actor/screenwriter Mike White—flips out and shoots at her at an affiliates' conference, this destroyer of the nuclear family gets the boot. After her nervous breakdown, Joanna's husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick, with a hunched posture that virtually eliminates his neck), buys a house in Stepford, Conn. Walter has been a vice-president under his powerhouse spouse and seems to relish the opportunity finally to take charge—to be the man of the family.

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You know what Joanna finds: a '50s Disneyland of suburban affluence in which dumpy men are married to women who dress and act like '50s garden-party ladies or flight attendants. There's also—and this is a subversive twist—a gay couple! Yes, the men of Stepford have no problem sympathizing with the gay "husband's" inability to control his queeny "wife." The non-robotic people—Kidman's Joanna, Bette Midler as the defiantly slobby Jewish author Bobbi Markowitz, and Roger Bart as Roger Bannister, a screamingly gay architect—form a club and dish about a Stepford wife (played by singer Faith Hill) who appeared to be short-circuiting at a square dance.

These scenes are a scream—and I don't even like camp, which long ago lost its gay bite and merged with pothead '80s irony. It helps that the actors have such headlong energy. Kidman looks great with a dark bob, and she has evolved into a fearless comedian: Watch her receive the news of her firing and maintain her demented smiling poise while accelerating past a gantlet of well-wishers, on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Midler is delicious; Bart (a Broadway stalwart new to movies) has killer one-liners and zings them into the stratosphere; Glenn Close stops the show as the town's electrifyingly chirpy den mother; and, as her icily affable husband, Christopher Walken is in a Method-zombie league of his own.

Rudnick is a funny writer—one of the funniest there is—but it must be said that he's too comfy in his camp little universe: His targets are obvious, and real emotion seems beyond his reach, at least in this mode. There are creepy moments all through The StepfordWives, but apart from the scene in which Roger Bannister recognizes his terrible destiny, nothing eats into your mind. And don't expect logic—dramatic, melodramatic, romantic, or science-fictional—in the desperate finale. In retrospect, almost nothing in the movie makes sense.

In truth, even its central conceit is dated and unconvincing: These smiling dolls with long legs and (inflatable) breasts who keep perfect houses and cook perfect meals and scream with pleasure in the sack: What man would want that??? OK, maybe for a weekend … 10 days at the outside…

Every third day?