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THE STEPFORD WIVES

2004, dir. Frank Oz
93 min. Rated PG-13
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close.

Review by Noel Wood

I wish I wasn't having to write this review. I mean, it's going to be a pretty fun review to write, but I sure wish I didn't have to write it. Because having to write this review means that I had to sit through THE STEPFORD WIVES, 93 of the most painful minutes I've had to endure in a movie theater in my life.

I almost didn't have to. The plan was to see something, preferably something at a nearby theater that wasn't too long, because I needed to wake up at a decent hour the next morning. There are about a dozen or so films out right now that I'd like to see, but we whittled it down between this and SAVED. Because SAVED started a half hour later and was at a theater five miles further out, the option was THE STEPFORD WIVES. I mean, why not? It's Frank Oz, it has Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken in it, how could I go wrong?

Now, I'll admit to never seeing the original STEPFORD WIVES. I've also never read the book. I knew the original was a pretty creepy science fiction story, and I knew that this was going to be treated a bit lighter than that one. But I was at least expecting dark comedy. Hell, I was at least expecting comedy. What I got instead was an hour and a half of anticipating the closing credits.

Having seen the previews, I'm sure you know the basic story. Big time television exec gets fired after a scandal, has a mental breakdown. Moves to a ritzy Connecticut town to try and recharge the ol' batteries, finds out that all the women are cyborgs. This was apparently a huge revelation in the original film, but it's not exactly a well-guarded secret in this version. They even basically tell you in the previews. The trick is building a compelling story around this premise. At least that's what most competent filmmakers would try to do here. Frank Oz decided to take another route here. I'm not sure what route that was, but certainly wasn't the right one.

You see, this film plays off of that gimmick for the first hour or so. "Hey, look! All the women of this town seem too perfect! What's wrong with this picture?" So it's revealed that all of these women were once affluent members of society. And then suddenly the old hippie chick becomes a clone of the other Stepford Wives, so we know something's up. And then, when things seem their bleakest, our heroine Joanna is cornered by her husband Walter and the Stepford Men's Club and shown a video and gets turned into a robot. But all the while, nothing really happens. Nothing is compelling. There are no clever bits of satire, just a whole lot of transparent imagery. It just bumbles along until it hits the climax, which we already know is coming.

Or do we? Because, as you could probably expect, Hollywood today isn't going to let this thing end on a dark note like the original did. Nope, and I'm going to give you some spoilers here. So if you don't want to be spoiled, stop reading now; just keep in mind that this is a bad, bad, bad movie and I'm just attempting to stop you from seeing it anyway.

Okay, here come the spoilers: Walter can't do it. He loves his wife too much, even with her flaws, so he decides to bring the whole operation down. Suddenly, there are dozens of angry wives, but the angriest of them all is Claire Wellington, the wife of Mike Wellington, the leader of the whole operation. Or at least that's what we've been led to believe. Because, in this update of a groundbreaking women's liberation story, it turns out that it was a woman doing all of the horrible things here. Yes, in the most ridiculous twist imaginable, Claire was the mastermind all along. Kinda puts the kibosh on the whole point of the original, or at least from what I can gather about it.

But the real zinger here is that this last bit of story, with the undoing-all-the-wives hoo-ha and the woman behind the curtain revelation at the end is that they all occur within like ten minutes. As if the movie weren't bad enough, we get a tacked-on and ridiculously rushed Hollywood ending that's even more painful to watch than the rest of the film.

And that's painful. Because this film, from start to finish, is god-awful. One of the "updates" for the 21st century version is the introduction of a homosexual couple. The "husband" is a conservative Republican; the "wife" is a walking, talking stereotype. And if you thought Frank Oz didn't set gay acceptance back far enough with IN & OUT, he really completes the hatchet job here. Why is Joanna upset that her gay comrade Roger has been "Stepfordized?" Because he no longer prances and lisps anymore.

And the performances aren't much to write home about either. Nicole Kidman keeps getting praise and Oscar nominations, but I have yet to see any merit for that. She's not awful here, at least not until she opens her mouth. And Nicole: you're no longer married to a closet case. Eat something, for crying out loud. You don't have to look like a twelve-year-old boy anymore. Matthew Broderick, on the other hand, sleepwalks through this entire movie, and you almost get the feeling that he's thinking about better things he could be doing. Bette Midler and Glenn Close do what they can with the limited script, and Christopher Walken - well, he's Walken, so you can't really go wrong with him on screen.

I ask myself how Frank Oz could have slipped so far, and then I realize that he's kinda been doing that for a while. It's like there's this moment in his career where he got tired of making good movies. After THE DARK CRYSTAL, THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, and WHAT ABOUT BOB?, he decided he had accomplished plenty. So he made HOUSESITTER. And THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD. And the overrated IN & OUT and BOWFINGER. And the unmemorable waste of three generations of great talent that was called THE SCORE. If you don't remember that one, it had Ed Norton, Robert DeNiro, and Marlon Brando, the last of whom refused to work directly with the director and referred to him as "Miss Piggy."

Oz, of course, is best known for such voice work. But in this instance, Oz isn't the spritual guiding light that is Yoda; he's more the bumbling goof that is Grover.

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