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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Stepford Wives (2004/Widescreen)

The Stepford Wives (2004/Widescreen)


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: C+     Film: C+



When I heard the cast and director for the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, there was reason for optimism.  The original film had dated a little bit and the material deserved a second serious look.  It always struck me odd that so many people today think of the first film as a satire or comedy, missing the point of the film and its book.  Unfortunately, writer Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz decided to do an outright comedy and ruined one of the simplest no-brainer remakes you could have asked for.


When the film begins, optimism jumps when we are treated to one of the best credit sequences to appear in a feature film in years, celebrating bright ranges of color in a dark manner.  A set of authentic industrial films that are mostly in color formats no longer used are bookended and split-screened with various patterns of flashing color that represent the digital computer world and the resulting technology, contrasting sharply with the appliances and conveniences featured in the various “home of the future” scenarios that promote nuclear energy and women staying in the home.  One even looks like the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger classic The Red Shoes (1948), edited so well to the title instrumental waltz with occasional vocals by David Arnold.  It is some of Arnold’s best work in years and the waltz should have linked the film to lead star Nicole Kidman’s work in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but the film just cannot resist the Spielberg aesthetic, which leads to its undoing.


This leads to Joanna Eberhart (Kidman), who instead of being a professional photographer as in the first film (reviewed elsewhere on this site) is a huge corporate television network executive.  In what is somewhat of a tip of the hat to Sidney Lumet’s film of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976) and Kidman is really good in the role, but the reality TV trend kicks in and once we are reminded that Chayefsky really was right, the scene gets played out quickly, a problem that plagues the film every time it dwells on the obvious, which gets worse later on.  It lands up looking like a James Bond set.  We could hope for a bounce back, though.


Bette Midler, in some of her best work in years, succeeds Paula Prentiss as Bobby, who becomes Joanna’s best friend.  Rudnick and company even get the point of Deep Purple, the rise of Gay Culture and how sex has become more common and more suppressed.  That is why all the problems that occur are all the more frustrating and unnecessary.


Whereas the 1975 Stepford community was rich, yet understated, this version pours on the wealth and luxuries like it is trying to end Hip Hop Music Videos as we know it, with dozens of the most expensive houses, automobiles and other amenities that turns into one of the film’s ultimate mistakes.  If you are replacing women with puppet duplicates, the last thing you do is draw attention to yourself or where you live.  James Bond never called this much of a fuss, no matter how fantastic those films ever became.  It should also be noted that this ultimately has the opposite effect of the far superior Pleasantville, Gary Ross’ underrated 1998 undertaking.  This film had no reason to go into that territory, but that is only one of many distractions.


What this brings on instead is taking one of the best-cast films of the year (maybe last few years) and turning the incredible amount of talent into a bunch of live action cartoon characatures.  That was never the intent of the Ira Levin book and it is fair to say that both films missed capturing the book, but this new version is miles further than Bryan Forbes film.  The more I watch it, the worse it gets.  It has issues dealing with how the Gay couple (or any gay couple) could fit into this community and their presence just thrown in negates the male/female issues, while an even more trivialized African-American couple shows up for five minutes before disappearing.  Talk about playing loosely with some great ideas!


There is talk about how everyone was trying to add ideas, which can be expected from so much talent, but that it got so bad that Rudnick and Oz had also thrown their arms up in surrender and the film tail-spinned out of control.  The ultimate reason doing this as a comedy fails is that because the 1950s ideal is a false sense of happiness on a grand scale and that is something you cannot just laugh off.  The film ultimate fights the loosing battle of replacing it with a new model of that false happiness for the 21st Century and especially after the events of 9/11/01, no one is going to buy that.  This is why anytime they try to have some happy ending in this film and go the Spielberg way, happiness no matter what remains truly unresolved; it rings falser than the 1950s films in the credits.  This explains its theatrical box office shortcomings.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image looks decent and was shot very well by Rob Hahn, A.S.C., but some limits in the DVD format prevent us from seeing how good the better color shots look and the films digital work and darker moments are not as impressive, especially as compared to the rest of the film.  The film has a good sound mix, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is the only 5.1 option here and its infamous over-compression veils the true extent of how dynamic a soundtrack this is.


Extras include five featurettes that feel more like promo opportunities than explanations about the film and how it was done, instead veiling the problematic production, yet still showing the lack of handle or edge the film landed up having.  The theatrical teaser that worked so well and final trailer that did not are included, as well as a good gag reel and mixed commentary by Oz.  He tells us how he was mistaken in trying to do an opening credits sequence in New York with hundreds of women performing to Helen Reddy’s classic I Am Woman, only realizing that it did not work after he had made it.  Then he got the great credits to begin with.  I realized in this that Oz was just not the right person to helm this film, no matter what his great talents.  Finally, we get deleted scenes, which shows one of the alternate fate of what happens to the original wives.  Sadly, they all become Betty Crocker versions of Inspector Gadget!  Geez!  What were these people thinking?  The rest of the cast includes Matthew Broderick who actually played Gadget in a bad live action film, Christopher Walken, an impressive Faith Hill, John Lovitz and Glenn Close among the more known names.


The biggest disaster of all is a miscalculation of monumental proportions.  What is the psychology behind men willing to have sex with robots the rest of their lives just to have wives they can control?  Could they not be murderers and get divorces form their human wives and take up with the robots?  They could adopt children, after all.  That has always been an issue in suspending disbelief even in the book, though there and in the first film, it does work as metaphor.  Too bad this remake of The Stepford Wives rarely works at all.  They made the assumption everyone knew what they knew about the book and film, but did not consider that few had seen the first film and less had actually read the book.  That kind of financial miscalculation is shocking, but that is what happened here.  Ultimately, the film is one of the year’s big disappointments.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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