The women’s movement of the 1970’s was one of the most seismic social movements in U.S. history because it affected every single household. It was about more than equal pay for equal work; it was about re-thinking every asumption about the family structure. There was a lot of talk about consciousness-raising and the personal being political, “click” moments, and Ms. Magazine. And the author of Rosemary’s Baby, which brought gothic horror into modern life, responded with another thriller that tapped into the zeitgeist, 1975’s The Stepford Wives.
I guess it says a lot about how far we’ve come (or haven’t come) that the remake, just a little over a quarter-century later, is a comedy.
Nicole Kidman plays Joanna, a powerhouse television network executive who is responsible for popular battle-of-the-sexes shows like “Balance of Power,” hosted by Meredith Viera and a reality show called “I Can Do Better.” When the outcome of one show leads to tragedy, Joanna is fired, and she and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick), a mid-level executive at the same television network who quit in solidarity, move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Connecticut.
But everything seems just a little bit too perfect, from the row of shiny SUVs to the huge homes with spotless furnishings in impeccable good taste. And the women are all Barbie-doll-like “perfect sex kitten bimbos” who seem to glide into a room, wait on their husbands with adoring smiles, go to aerobics in full make-up and high heels and whose idea of the ideal book club subject is the Golden Treasury of Christmas Keepsakes and Collectibles. Serenely presiding over them all is Claire Wellington (Glenn Close in a deft performance).
Joanna’s only confidantes are two other new arrivals, an outspoken author named Bobbi (Bette Midler) and a caustic gay man named Roger (Roger Bart). Joanna is appalled. But then she wonders if maybe she is missing something. All of those Stepford husbands seem very happy, while Walter is ready to leave her, because “Your attitude makes people want to kill you.” She thinks he might be right when he tells her that “Only castrating Manhattan career bitches wear black!” The woman whose identity was so inextricably linked to her success on the job that being fired precipitated a nervous breakdown wonders if there might be something more balanced and satisfying in creating a happy home.
So, with the same drive and energy she once gave to developing television shows, she gets to work, making zillions of cupcakes and checking up on one of her neighbors who seemed to have had some sort of seizure at a Stepford party. “We need to be supportive. That’s how people behave outside of Manhattan.” Joanna thought she saw sparks coming from the neighbor’s ears, but Roger reassures her that it was just cheap jewelry.
Joanna does her best to try to fit in, but when Bobbi and Roger are completely transformed, she decides to find out what is going on in that mysterious Stepford men’s club.
It’s less a movie than a string of jokes (including a very funny one about AOL), and it loses some momentum in the middle when it seems unsure of its point of view. When Joanna suddenly seems to remember that she has children and she cares about them, it is not clear whether this is just another comic contrivance or an attempt to create some sort of character growth. A surprising twist at the end helps to add a little zest. And the idea that a generation later, some women might consider escaping their “over-stressed/over-burdened/under-loved” lives to return to a simpler world of domestic perfection (one could almost imagine a pre-insider trading Martha Stewart presiding over a Stepford wives Garden Club meeting) is an idea that deserves some exploration. Maybe by the next time they remake this story, the Stepford wife will be the one who has figured out how to make it all balance.
Parents should know that the movie has strong material for a PG-13, including vulgar humor, very explicit sexual references and an overheard sexual situation and comic violence. Characters drink, smoke, joke about shock therapy, psychotropic prescription drugs and Viagra, and use some bad language. There are some very nasty characters plotting some very nasty things. The main characters are all white and the movie has some comic stereotyping, but a strength of the movie is its portrayal of a gay couple who are accepted by the community.
Families who see this movie should talk about why a thriller plot from 29 years ago makes more sense as a comedy today. How are both inspired by the conflicting pressures on both men and women? What do you think about what the movie has to say about defining success and happiness? About perfection not really working?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Death Becomes Her, How to Murder Your Wife, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and of course the original The Stepford Wives. But forget about the dumb made-for-television sequel, 1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives.