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Life in the affluent suburbs


The first feature film based on Ira Levin's novel, The Stepford Wives, a combination of horror and science fiction with roots reaching all the way back to Frankenstein, appeared in1975 and, though it barely retained the spirit of the original, proved influential in some unforeseen ways. The movie spawned three sequels, all of them inadequate made-for-television flicks, but more important, it added a memorable phrase to the vernacular.

            The adjective Stepford, applied to a variety of people or even objects, suggests blandness, docility, saccharine sweetness, and conformity to a safe and inoffensive mediocrity. Laura Bush, for example, seems the perfect Stepford First Lady, just the sort of wife some committee of copywriters and political hacks would invent for their alleged president.

            The new remake deletes the horror elements of the first movie, substituting instead an extremely broad comic satire of a rather old-fashioned notion of contemporary suburbia. Although consistent in its vision of the mindless conformity of much of American bourgeois culture, the picture also betrays a thoroughly immature and generally specious conception of its own perfectly acceptable premises. In its heavy-handed approach to its material, the script avoids dealing with its own assumptions, trading logic for laughs, coy innuendo for intelligence.

            Despite its date and its constant allusions to the contemporary war between the sexes, The Stepford Wives grows directly out of the science fiction literature and cinema of 1950s, which frequently examined problems of identity and American male inadequacy. Works like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters dramatized the first concern and The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman the second. Village of the Damned cleverly and efficiently combined the two. The present film attempts to exploit some of the backlash against feminism by establishing a society in which a group of second-rate men conspire to dominate their ambitious, successful, powerful spouses.

            The protagonist, Joanna Eberhardt (Nicole Kidman), the head of a television network, suffers a major breakdown when she loses her job over the tragic failure of one of her man-hating "reality" shows. After drastic treatment, she and her husband (Matthew Broderick) leave New York and relocate to the affluent, isolated town of Stepford, Connecticut, a tranquil place with the soothing pastel colors of a television commercial, a collection of magnificent mansions, a fleet of SUVs, and a population of contented suburbanites.

            The women, all stunning, dress up in seductive outfits, happily do all the domestic chores, gladly caddy for their husbands on the golf course, take their conversational material from the sort of magazines that inform their readers of ten ways to use pine cones at Christmas time, and smile brainlessly all the time.

            Resisting the temptations of the Simply Stepford Day Spa, run by Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), Kidman smells something terrifically rotten in the state of Stepford. With the help of the only other oddballs in the village --- Bette Midler as a sloppy, cynical, aggressively Jewish writer and Roger Bart as the flamboyant half of a homosexual couple --- she investigates the curious doings at the Stepford Men's Club, where her husband and his pals hang out.

            As any viewer even vaguely familiar with the history of the concept would expect, the trio discovers that the leader of the Club, Claire's husband Mike (Christopher Walken), supervises a complete transformation, through computer wizardry, plastics, and nanotechnology, of the women of the town into the robotic Stepford Wives.

            After that discovery the script's logic goes completely haywire, very like one of the town's smiling females, and simply runs away from its equivocations about whether Walken and his colleagues alter the behaviors of the women or actually replace them with robots. It settles for laying on the political and social satire with a trowel, squeezing laughs from the simple fact of suburbia itself, from its broad presentation of such obvious targets as the consumer society, materialism, the self righteous hypocrisy of the Republican view of life.

            Those subjects certainly deserve all the attacks the filmmakers can muster, but they rely far too heavily on the broad and easy approach, avoiding subtlety and blunting their edge with silly and exaggerated comedy.

            The acting consists almost entirely of shtick, with the main characters delivering their speeches like punch lines, and overstating one characterizing trait: Midler constantly emphasizes her Jewishness, Roger Bart behaves like a parody of a homosexual, and Glenn Close smiles so hard her face almost cracks.

            Christopher Walken's eccentric presence at least lends a bit of quirkiness and weirdness to the excessiveness of most of the performers. As for Nicole Kidman, she seems even less interesting than when she put on a putty nose and a glum face and impersonated Virginia Woolf, who was decidedly not a Stepford Wife.

The Stepford Wives (PG-13), starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, Faith Hill, Glenn Close, Jon Lovitz, David Marshall Grant, Lorri Bagley; based on the novel by Ira Levin; screenplay by Paul Rudnick; directed by Frank Oz. Cinemark Tinseltown; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Henrietta.