'Stepford Wives' starts with sparks, fizzles out by the ending

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2004

Faith Hill's character in ''The Stepford Wives,'' a beautiful Barbie doll of a suburban housewife, spins wildly out of control while square dancing at a Fourth of July celebration in the idyllic Connecticut town that gives the film its title.

Then she falls to the floor with a thud and twitches a few times as smoke and sparks spew from her head, indicating to newcomer Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) that maybe this woman, and the others in town, aren't as perfect as they seem or even human.

The moment is an apt symbol for the film as a whole.

It begins promisingly enough as a fast and funny satirization of a lily-white, Lilly Pulitzer existence, and it looks great. The houses, clothes and cars are dead-on, and everything is bathed in a shimmering, picture-perfect light.

Then after about an hour, ''The Stepford Wives'' takes an abrupt turn to a darker tone, and the last half-hour feels hastily tacked-on. Ultimately, it also lands with a thud.

According to myriad, breathless insider reports, fighting and re-shoots plagued this $90 million, all-star production. (Besides Kidman and country singer Hill, the cast includes Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close and Christopher Walken.) Truly, who knows? We can, however, deduce that the film was edited clunkily, especially toward the end.

The real problem seems to have originated far earlier: Why remake ''The Stepford Wives'' in the first place?

The original 1975 film, based on Ira Levin's novel and starring Katharine Ross, was played straight as a horrifying cautionary tale during a time of burgeoning women's independence.

The men in town replaced their wives with happy, homemaking robots; if you ran a white-gloved finger across it, you wouldn't find a speck of irony. And to this day, placing the word ''Stepford'' in front of anything immediately suggests obsessive rigidity and artificial idealism.

Here, director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (who also collaborated on 1997's ''In & Out'') go for big, broad laughs then they shift sharply and try to make heavy, meaty statements about society and gender roles.

The concept seems anachronistic, as did the premise of ''Mona Lisa Smile,'' in which Julia Roberts taught the women of Wellesley in 1953 that it's OK to think for yourself.

Kidman serves as a the source of enlightenment this time as Joanna, a hard-driving TV network president who specializes in reality shows that, amusingly, don't look too different from current prime-time offerings. (One game show, which pits a husband and wife against each other with a button in between them, resembles ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' and even features its host, Meredith Vieira.)

After Joanna gets fired and suffers a nervous breakdown, her husband, Walter Kresby (Broderick), packs up her and their two kids and moves them from Manhattan to sunny Stepford, ''Connecticut's family paradise.''

On arrival, she's a little freaked out by her perfectly coifed neighbors; Claire Wellington (Close), who functions as the town's prom queen, leads the other women in giddy aerobics exercises based on household tasks.

But Walter likes that the women are beautiful and domestic. He also likes the men's association, an overgrown frat house where the guys sit around all day, smoking cigars, drinking whiskey and playing video games. (Walken, as Claire's husband, Mike, is their big kahuna.)

Joanna finds fellow skeptics in two other new neighbors: sarcastic writer Bobbie Markowitz (Midler) and flamboyant architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart). One by one, though, they undergo Stepfordization, too. (Roger's partner, a gay Republican, uses the technology to turn him into a generic candidate for state office in a Brooks Brothers suit.)

This is where the tone changes irreparably. As Joanna investigates further, the film's misogyny and irrelevance become crystal clear and attempts at dark humor from this point feel flatter than an undercooked souffle.

''The Stepford Wives,'' a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and language. Running time: 93 minutes.

Two stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.

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