Extreme Makeover

stepford wives, movie review, new york magazine
Nicole Kidman and Glenn Close in The Stepford Wives.Photo: Andrew Schwartz/Paramount

In this golden age of nip-and-tuck, remaking The Stepford Wives might seem like a good idea, but after you see the new version starring Nicole Kidman, you’ll probably wish that director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick had stayed away. The 1975 adaptation of the Ira Levin novel, with Katharine Ross, was a creepy, straightforward thriller; the redo is all-out farce. Despite the film’s troubled history of wranglings and reshoots, it’s not quite the disaster that was rumored—there are some funny performers and some laughs—but what this movie about makeovers really needs is a makeover.

Levin’s novel, set in the fictional village of Stepford, Connecticut, was a bejeweled contraption with every suspenseful detail riveted in place; his wealthy, New Canaan–style community was populated by boorish, unattractive husbands with inexplicably dutiful, picture-perfect wives who turned out to be robots fashioned by the men to meet their every desire. The desires were few, really—the wives were Betty Crockers in the kitchen, Playmates in bed. In the original movie, Ross’s Joanna, who has reluctantly moved to Stepford with her lawyer husband to escape the New York din, gradually realizes to her horror that she is in danger of being robotized herself. Levin’s book was a slam at male piggery—its robot-making Men’s Association is created in angry response to a Betty Friedan lecture to the soon-to-be-disbanded Stepford women’s club—but what people took away from the movie was the image of those blank-eyed beauties who might have stepped out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Audience members could be overheard saying, only half in jest, “I know someone just like that.”) It was the ultimate evolution for all the perky, kitchen-scrubbing, cupcake-baking, TV-commercial homemakers. The film was intended as a cautionary feminist statement, but a note of condescension was built in—by positing the men as entirely responsible for the ladies’ situation, it implied that women, in the widest sense, were subordinate, second class. They lacked the will to change their lives because men made them that way.

“If Stepford had gone beyond camp jibes at décor and suburbia, it might have been a classic.”

In the new Stepford Wives, Kidman’s Joanna Eberhart has been revamped as a ball-busting television-network president in basic black who specializes in ghastly reality shows built around the gender wars. It’s a venomous, postfeminist portrait of a modern career woman who, soon enough, loses her career in a corporate putsch and becomes a basket case. Her caring, neglected husband, Matthew Broderick’s Walter, a secondary player in his wife’s network, moves with her to the seemingly idyllic Stepford in an effort to save the marriage. There they are greeted by super-nerd husbands and their blissful, high-heeled homemaker cutie-pies in gingham dresses—with two exceptions: Bette Midler’s Upper West Side refugee, Bobbie Markowitz, a blabbermouth writer who first shows up wearing a Deep Purple T-shirt; and a swishy architect, Roger (Roger Bart), whose tightly wound Republican lawyer partner (David Marshall Grant) cringes at his flamboyance. Bart has the movie’s best lines. (He sizes up the décor of the men’s-club drawing room as “Ralph Lauren meets Sherlock Holmes.”) Midler is raucously entertaining—in one scene, as she listens in on some wild lovemaking, she’s so cross-eyed with lust that she looks like a debauched raccoon. We keep waiting for Bobbie and Roger to turn into automatons, and when they do, most of the fun goes out of the movie. But watching Midler as a zombie traipse through this Wasp enclave is still more enjoyable than, for example, observing Kidman defrost, especially since she seems glacéed even when she’s supposed to be earthy. And Glenn Close as Stepford’s supreme party hostess is all plastic smiles, which seem indistinguishable from the ones she normally flashes. Fortunately, her husband is played by Christopher Walken, who gets a laugh just by making an entrance—he’s so undeniably Christopher Walken. He’s the perfect comic villain for a movie about robot makers and their robot wives, since there’s always been something animatronic about his clipped diction and bearing. (He’s in on the joke here.)

If the filmmakers had made a point of satirizing the new makeover culture in ways that went beyond camp jibes at décor and suburbia, they might have come up with a classic. The richest (untapped) joke in the new Stepford Wives is that, almost 30 years after the first film, men are still pigs and women are still playthings. This premise might seem spent, and yet all you have to do is look to the popularity of a show like The Bachelor, or see a movie like 13 Going on 30 or Raising Helen. And, of course, modern plastic surgery can turn practically any woman into a Stepford Wife look-alike. Men are not immune to the knife, either—perhaps a better, riskier redo would have been The Stepford Husbands. The filmmakers’ own scalpel could have been sharper; by the end, we’re swamped in homilies about how accepting imperfection is what makes us truly human. Hollywood—the world capital of perfection at any price—has never been very good at lying through its teeth.

In Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, Tom Hanks gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Viktor Navorski, a rustic visitor en route to New York from Eastern Europe who is stranded at JFK when his country undergoes a violent coup. His passport suddenly invalid, he becomes a man without a country. Homeland Security orders him to stay within the airport’s international-transit lounge until things clear up, and when they don’t, and days turn into weeks and months, the officers can’t seem to get rid of him—he can’t fly home for reasons that become clear in the end, and he won’t venture outside JFK despite the promise of the exasperated security chief (Stanley Tucci) to turn a blind eye. Viktor, who barely speaks English, contrives a life for himself at the airport, which is presented as a multiracial microcosm of America, a cross section of humanity. The conceit is a bit too cute. It’s not enough for Spielberg to show us Viktor’s (highly ingenious) survival skills—he also has to transform him into a kind of holy messenger who brings hope to everybody: the lovestruck food-service worker, the Indian janitor, the immigration officer, and so on. He even has a chaste (and boring) dalliance with a wayward flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is made radiant by Viktor’s inner glow. Spielberg has been quoted as saying that he wanted to make people laugh and cry and feel good about the world in “difficult times,” but he lets almost none of those times intrude, even though his film is centered on the security apparatus of a major airport. It’s an odd fable: Viktor is the mysterious visitor who shows us what the American Dream is all about—in the movie’s terms, compassion for others—without ever wanting to become an American himself. He’s a spiritual twin to E.T., who also had trouble phoning home.

Extreme Makeover