Archive for Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The Stepford Wives’ gets campy

(PG-13) **1/2

June 9, 2004

Before the advance press screening of "The Stepford Wives" in Kansas City, members of Ron McGee's Late Night Theatre troupe performed a number from their musical of the same name. The company of female
impersonators donned sun hats and sundresses while pushing around
shopping carts during a lip-synched homage to the grocery scene from
the original 1975 movie.

What is most surprising is that when the new film began to roll, it
was just as campy as McGee's drag queens.

Nearly three decades after the mildly eerie horror flick became part
of pop culture, "The Stepford Wives" remake has taken the material in
a wholly different direction. Director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul
Rudnick turn the story into a comedy that satirizes modern
male/female relationships. The result is a film that constantly
teeters between masterpiece and fiasco.

Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna, a "castrating Manhattan bitch" who has
become a top television executive in charge of sordid reality
programming. When a crime occurs that is linked to the unveiling of
her fall season schedule, the network decides to cut her loose rather
than weather the lawsuits.

Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) believes it to be good therapy
for her to get away from the high pressure world of New York, so they
move to the wealthy, gated community of Stepford, Conn.

Aside from a renowned author (Bette Midler) and a gay architect
(Roger Bart), Joanna has trouble connecting with any of the other
folks in Stepford - especially the wives. The women possess great
beauty but seem as subservient and emotionally vapid as the high-tech
appliances that come equipped in the town's luxurious houses.

They "look like Betty Crocker at Betty Ford," Roger comments.

Meanwhile, Walter is fitting in fine at the Stepford Men's Assn.,
which is like a cross between the Playboy Mansion and a Microsoft
programmers lounge. The reclusive haven is presided over by Mike
(Christopher Walken) and his June Cleaver-like wife Claire (Glenn
Close).

When Joanna's marriage begins to collapse and her close friends start
acting "funny," she uncovers the sinister secrets behind Stepford.

Although the names, setting and general premise still hail from Ira
Levin's 1972 novel, the intent of this updating is not at all the
same. No one will charge the filmmakers with lazily churning out a
robotic sequel.

Unfortunately, the basic story is still structured like a
horror-thriller and the film desperately craves this element.
Whenever the plot veers off into an area that generates tension -
like when Kidman and Midler first spy on the Stepford Men's Assn. -
the situation is defused through humor. Even the central "reveal"
(empty eye sockets and all) is done as a way to get laughs rather
than scares.

It's a credit to all those involved that the jokes work as well as
they do. This IS quite a funny cast - especially Walken, Midler and
frumpy Jon Lovitz, whose much-publicized nude scene was mercifully
left on the cutting-room floor.

Also good are the little throwaway visual gags, such as showing the
parking lot at the men's association filled only with vehicles like
Harleys, Porsches and "Starsky & Hutch"-painted Gran Torinos - all
cars that wives normally would be appalled that their husbands had
purchased.

But the film's finale simply doesn't hold together. The concluding 10
minutes consists of nothing but characters making explanations, with
one twist after another hurled at the audience.

At this point, the picture becomes so tricky that its basic logic
falls apart. Early on there are several scenes that dramatically
demonstrate the mechanical qualities of the women (e.g. the automated
teller), but the ending dismisses this fact with a secondary
explanation that harpoons the whole premise.

It's all inserted in order to bypass the downer quality of the
original film with a peppy comeuppance more worthy of a "Married With
Children" episode.

Perhaps Oz and Rudnick (the pair responsible for "In & Out") were
specifically trying to turn "The Stepford Wives" into a camp classic.
But camp doesn't happen on purpose; it typically has to be by
accident. What's left is an often audacious movie that is just too
serious about being campy.

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