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The Stepford Wives (2004)

Every summer studios trot out their cinematic thoroughbreds hoping to have the latest blockbuster — and every summer at least a handful of films fall flat on their faces, unable to attract an audience or live up to their own hype, if they created any in the first place. Such is the fate of 2004's remake of The Stepford Wives. Then again, the film had already attracted bad buzz due to re-shoots, recasting (originally John and Joan Cusack were slated, with John replaced by Matthew Broderick), and publicly grousing stars. And though it would be easy to blame the re-shoots as the biggest problem with Wives, the picture is a textbook example of how flawed and irrational the studio system can be. It's a remake, and it was commissioned (obviously) because the term "Stepford Wives" has entered our common vernacular. The source was Ira Levin's 1972 novel, which was first filmed in 1975, starring Katherine Ross. The story concerns a town where all the women act as perfect, demure spouses — or at least they all do eventually. A modest thriller with a great hook, the original book and movie were of their period in that they were a play on the march of feminism, and they closed with a perfect "gotcha" horror denouement that managed to speak to cultural apprehensions. But the most fundamental problem with Frank Oz's 2004 remake is that it doesn't say much of anything. (Producer Scott Rudin noted in an interview with The New York Times that originally the project was meant to be a daring postfeminist take on the original, and "it could have been great if we had ever figured out what that meant.") Removed from its original context, the movie isn't a story about the prisons of old mores, or the fear of becoming the airheaded "Stepford Wife." Losing the horror elements (which, considering the success of films like The Ring and The Grudge, might have been more lucrative), it's supposed to be a black comedy, but to be effectively black it has to be viciously on-target. Written by Paul Rudnick (best known for his work on the Addams Family movies, and for his critic alter-ego Libby Gelman Waxman), his dishy humor is the only relief the film offers, but even his pith can't carry over the emptiness of the script itself, and even then his tone is off-key (his one-liners may zing, but they act as digressions without context and eventually become distracting). Moreover, his satire never identifies an objective.

*          *          *

Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna Eberhart, a high-powered TV producer who loses her job after one of her reality shows has a contestants who snaps. Retreating to Stepford, Conn., with her two kids and husband Walter Kresby (Broderick), she doesn't seem to fit in with the dingy women who are only interested in pleasing their husbands. She teams up with slobby author Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and the very gay Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) to investigate the weirdness, but quickly both her compatriots become Stepfordized. It seems that Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) has invented a way to turn women into robotic slaves. Actually, to call them robotic brings up one of The Stepford Wives' biggest flaws: As can be noted in the deleted scenes, the women (and Bart's character) were killed and replaced by robots as in the original, but this must not have gone over well at test screenings (or the studio felt that Midler and Bart were the picture's biggest assets, since Kidman and Broderick are essentially bland). The "women as robots" hook was abandoned, even though trace elements of that plot-point survive (one woman spits out cash like an ATM). In fact, this revision is so sloppy that it shows just how little faith everyone had in the final product. The film could have been about so many things — from neo-conservativism, to the universal fear of growing older and blander, to (had John Cusack starred, he the king of mopey feminized romantic leading men) how the feminist movement has made many men feel emasculated. Yet the movie is so overworked and short (running 92 min.) that a story which originally had a purpose castrates itself. Kidman's character never becomes particularly sympathetic, nor do we feel much victory when she overcomes the Stepford society — the script is set up to offer some sort of growth for her character, but this too must have been axed by the reshoots. Indeed, the making of The Stepford Wives would make for a great case study, and were a book written on its making, it'd be comparable to such classic tomes about failed films as The Final Cut and The Devil's Candy. Paramount presents The Stepford Wives in a good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary by director Oz, five "making-of" featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau (49 min. total), six deleted scenes that offer evidence of the extensive restructuring, a gag reel (5 min.), the theatrical teaser and trailer, and bonus trailers. Keep-case.

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