It’s some small credit to the advance of American civilization that The Stepford Wives of 2004 finds so little salvageable from ”The Stepford Wives” of 1975: The remake is, in fact, marooned in a swamp of camp inconsequentiality. Some three decades ago, the notion of a brotherhood of threatened suburban husbands colluding to stifle the squawks of wives drawn to a dangerous, liberating women’s movement by turning unruly spouses into docile robots was a ballsy commentary on the war between the sexes. In his 1972 bubbling fondue of a novel, Ira Levin located unkempt male fear and female anger within the trimmed-hedge borders of a sci-fi-perfect planned community blessed with modern appliances and old-fashioned notions of loving, honoring, and obeying — and the movie that followed kept the sharp edges of Levin’s satire intact. The title itself became a pop-cultural password, understood everywhere, shorthand for what no woman ever again wanted to be, and what no man could ever again admit to desiring. Now, girlfriend, you can kiss that feminist-theory stuff goodbye. Now armored babes successful as all get-out dress voluntarily like Stepford dolls in 50s-femme sheaths and Mamie Eisenhower handbags. Now husbands write man-mag essays about how their career-frazzled wives won’t come to bed. Now women are Supreme Court justices and men are from Mars. And now we’re handed a remake of ”The Stepford Wives”?
Well, yes, but in the only style considered safe, apparently, by moviemakers who want to pacify most of the people most of the time: These updated wives, and the dramas they’re caught up in, have gone gay. ”Sex and the City” gay. Jack and Karen on ”Will & Grace” pixie-ish. Heterosexuals are, by implication, the new robots in the Stepford envisioned by director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick. And the sooner one can adapt to a ”Queer Eye” view of Nicole Kidman as robot-resistant Joanna Eberhart, or Bette Midler (hellooo!) as Joanna’s farklempt, unmuzzled neighbor Bobbie Markowitz, or Glenn Close in the drag queen role of Stepford doyenne Claire Wellington, the sooner one can find one’s way around the neighborhood.
Actually, it’s not so much a neighborhood as a collection of comedy checkpoints. In the beginning there’s Kidman, exuberantly strident, as a roaring TV executive, heir to the mania of Faye Dunaway in ”Network.” Joanna the network cheerleader delights in her hateful reality-TV shows (including I Can Do Better, in which spouses ditch one another for hotter sex partners) — until she’s axed. Then there’s Joanna the basket case, removed by her husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), to the restorative tranquility of Connecticut, where she emerges from her nervous breakdown to discover friends, among the pastel neighbors, in Bobbie and a giddily loud-and-proud new ally, Roger (”The Producers”’ Roger Bart).
Joanna’s dawning realization that the women of Stepford aren’t quite human is supposed to disturb her, as is Walter’s realization that he rather admires the pneumatic, airbrushed wives of his new buddies in the Stepford Men’s Association, but the anxiety is played with quotation marks around it. Christopher Walken’s guest-weirdo turn as charismatic head of the club is supposed to be spooky and maybe even scary, but the performance, pure Walkenese, is its own Krazy Glued novelty act.
The bright Rudnickian jokes plink like ice cubes in a Sea Breeze on a Fire Island beach: When Roger, in his own version of Stepfordization, is turned from a bitchy raconteur with frosted hair and a lavender sweater thrown around his shoulders to a boxy gay Republican, his former hot-for-hunks life is summed up in a discarded little T-shirt with a picture of Viggo Mortensen on it and a photo of Orlando Bloom. When Joanna sits in on a ladies’ book club, she stuns her peers into bovine stupor by proclaiming her avid interest in Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. (They’re excited by a coffee-table book on Christmas decorations.)
These are funny bits — the movie is landscaped with them like so much expensive shrubbery. But at no time is Joanna, or, indeed, the rest of the already zombie-fied wives, ever really in danger. At no time do the men — that is, the straight ones — believably hold the upper hand. In the new town of Stepford, there’s no bitterness, no struggle, no competition, none of the scars of the sexual revolution. There’s just gay apparel.