The Stepford Wives
Directed by Frank Oz
The Stepford Wives is comedy with social commentary that lampoons male chauvinism, consumerism, and vanity. In a stretch it might be considered dark but it’s actually a snappy comedy -- lots of great one-liners – but with an underlying feeling that something really creepy is going on.
The basic premise is that in the town of Stepford, a sci-fi experiment in human engineering is taking place. All of the women in town are robotic, idealized housewives who want nothing more than to please their lazy husbands – June Cleaver meets R2D2. The production design of this ideal town is none too subtle – every house a dream house --- gardens perfectly manicured -- you can be forgiven for thinking that you are being set up for some real horror but they stick with clever dialog and the slightly dark undertone. The sci-fi itself (a small part of the film) is shown in a 1950s-style fashion that told me that they didn’t want us to take it too seriously – if you’re looking for Vin Diesel, you got the wrong theater.
I can’t say enough to praise the fine cast – some of those great one-liners might have fallen flat but for these fine actors. Nicole Kidman plays Joanna, a TV network chief who got fired after a reality show went tragically bad -- that incident itself is good for a few laughs. The smart thing that they did with the character is to resist the temptation to make her a hardcore workaholic driven to succeed to the point that the viewer might think she would be better off just cooling it a housewife (she does have two kids.) Joanne (along with Bette Midler’s – another great comedic performance as a rebel among the femmebots) is the skeptic who realizes right away that something is terribly wrong in this little suburban utopia. Matthew Broderick got it right as her husband who loves her very much but gets a little frustrated when he can’t compete with her success. The filmmakers had a delicate balance to play with his character – do they make him into a monster if he completely goes along with the experiment or does he reject it – and if so why do they stay? Christopher Walken is creepy-great as Mike Wellington, the alpha-male in the brotherhood of Stepford men – even though he is clearly a bad guy they made him a somewhat likeable character – in a dark-humor sort of way.
My favorite character – my highest praise – goes to Glenn Close for her Claire Wellington, Mike’s wife and partner in crime. They made such a great couple as masterminds of this wacky-evil experiment. Glenn Close gave us a Claire with a zeal for robotic female perfection that was driven by a twisted sense of wide-eyed idealism – I found that very, very funny in the same way that Walken’s character amused me. Stepford was a very ambitious movie project – mixing genres like comedy and sci-fi while not aiming at the youth audience in some obvious way. I have a few minor quips. The costumes and production design were a bit too obvious – particularly the clothes for the femmebots were a little over-the-top. They put in a gay character (well played by Roger Bart) – and while the character made me laugh I didn’t see the point. This gay man was accepted by the chauvinistic men of Stepford. Were they trying to make the point that while the men wanted to turn their women into robots, at least they weren’t homophobic?
The filmmakers were, at times, just a little heavy-handed in exposing their point-of-view – but overall the film has a light feel – they never got intensely didactic. This is a fine comedy that should make you think as well as laugh – give it a chance.
Images are copyright Paramount Pictures.
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