The Stepford Wives

Paramount HomeVideo, 2004

Frank Oz

Screenplay: Paul Rudnick

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, John Lovitz

PG-13, 92 minutes

Sanctity of Marriage
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, January, 2005

I've always admired Paul Rudnick's writing and his sense of humor. On stage he gave us Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told and I Hate Hamlet. He also penned the screenplays for In and Out and The Addams Family Values. I was very excited when I first heard that he was re-imagining The Stepford Wives as a comedy. What a ripe subject for a campy satire as only Rudnick could write it! Especially with all the "sanctity of marriage" bullshit we keep hearing about nowadays.

For anyone who isn't aware, the original Stepford Wives was a horror novel, and subsequent film, by Ira Levin, (the author of Rosemary's Baby). In Stepford, all of the wives have been killed and replaced by beautiful and subservient robots. I envisioned this remake to be a sharp attack on the current "moral values" debate, disguised as a comedy.

Sorry to say, the film didn't live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. It is a mess, a disaster, a celluloid catastrophe. Why? All of the elements were there. A brilliant writer... a terrific cast... the art direction was fabulous... the look of the Donna Reed housewives was perfect... what went wrong? Unfortunately this film perfectly illustrates how filmmaking by committee in Hollywood is anathema to the art of cinema. I rarely listen to backstage gossip, but reports of extensive re-writes and the ending being re-shot explain everything in this case. I'm willing to give Rudnick the benefit of the doubt that his original script was probably much better than what was hacked to pieces onscreen.

Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a television executive whose career is cut short when a contestant on one of her Reality shows snaps. Fired by the network, she and her husband Walter, (Matthew Broderick) move to the beautiful town of Stepford. Where all the wives look, and act, like June Cleaver on acid. Joanna senses that something is amiss. The women are all former judges, lawyers, doctors, executives, and now they all seem positively orgasmic while doing housework. Joanna is dumbstruck while watching the women, led by Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), pretend that they are washing machines in their aerobics class. Along with two other newcomers, author Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and famed architect Roger Bannister (yes, Rudnick has added a gay couple to the mix), Joanna investigates the strange goings-on. She soon realizes that there is a dark secret behind the men's club run by Claire's husband, Mike, (Christopher Walken in another of the psychotic, yet charismatic, roles that he does to perfection).

Good concept, but bad execution. For a script by Paul Rudnick, The Stepford Wives is not very funny. Yes, there are a few of the one-liners that he writes so well (Bobbie's best-selling book is called I Love You Mother But Please Die), but the laughs are few and far between. Rudnick's trademark camp is evident, but there's not enough of it. It didn't help that the director, as he himself states in the DVD's commentary, cut a lot of jokes because he felt they didn’t further the plot. What is a Paul Rudnick script without the jokes? But the biggest problem is that the final film is incoherent, and the twist at the end makes nonsense of the whole story. It is clear when one wife dispenses money like an ATM that she has been replaced by a robot, but later we discover that chips have been implanted into their brains instead. The original screenplay reportedly followed Ira Levin's concept but the powers-that-be changed the ending without having the brains to remove all of the earlier elements that contradict the new ending. This is sloppy filmmaking of the ninth degree.

Gay filmgoers might be troubled by the male couple. The butcher half is embarrassed by his partner's flamboyance. When he becomes a Stepford Wife, say good-bye to nelly. Prior to this, he is a living and breathing stereotype. This is unfortunate because Rudnick, in the past, has always had a talent for subverting cliches, and making them funny, especially for a gay audience. Take for example two classic moments in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.

1. a gay Adam appears in the Garden of Eden and sings its praises but says he would have put the lake over there, and
2. Jane and Mabel discover fire and invent the wheel, while Adam and Steve invent shampoo-and-conditioner-in-one.

The Stepford Wives does not live up to his earlier standards and this is a damned shame.

Proof that the filmmakers didn't know what they were doing can be found in the deleted scenes on the DVD. In the original film, Katherine Ross stabs her best friend (after she has gone Stepford) and watches as a robot speaks like a skipping record while walking into walls. Amongst the deleted scenes is what would have been the highlight of the movie, had they stuck to Levin's original concept. Kidman stabs Midler, who then short circuits. One of her arms morphs into a vacuum cleaner, a music speaker appears in her stomach, she cleans the kitchen in a heartbeat; finally her legs turn into a lawnmower. This was a brilliant scene. And it wound up on the cutting room floor!

It’s a pity, because Rudnick worked well with director Frank Oz in the past on In and Out. Ultimately, The Stepford Wives is proof that too many cooks spoil the broth.I expect films like the Flintstones movie with its army of writers to be stupid and all over the place; The Stepford Wives is a profound disappointment.


More On Paul Rudnick:
In & Out

More On Frank Oz:
In & Out

More On Matthew Broderick :
Torch Song Trilogy

More On Glenn Close:
In & Out