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The Stepford Wives

Extreme makeover of a cult favorite with a truly mind-boggling twist

This star-studded comedy retrofit of Brain Forbes's 1975 chiller initially shines and sparkles like a squeaky-clean Stepford kitchen, but as it swiffers toward its twisted conclusion, it loses much of its luster as catchy one-liners, silly gags, picture-perfect homes and gardens, and an utterly ridiculous denouement eclipse much of the social satire that it aspires to (and that distinguish, in retrospect, Forbes's campy original).

Based on Ira Levin's 1972 best-selling horror story, shot at the height of the women's lib movement, and originally released to a yawning public, Forbes's parable of anti-feminism steadily gained a cult following over the years. Its dated look, however, with pastel pantsuits and Nixon-era hair-dos, made this low-budget film, with a message that resonates to this day, a natural candidate for a remake.

In the original film, Stepford is a sanctuary for greedy, powerful males who conspire in a devilish plot to keep their vivacious wives in check. In the 2004 remix, the women are no longer spouses trying to find their own identities (which prompts their husbands to replace them with domesticated replicas of their former selves), but powerful movers and shakers who are clearly the breadwinners in their relationships (which begs the question, what on earth made these intelligent and ambitious women marry the drab, sophomoric, underachieving men in their lives?). What remains of the original plot, however, is the sad reality that the men apparently still can't deal with women who aspire to be something else than subservient homemakers; but in director Frank Oz's stylish remake, this message is diluted at best in favor of creating computer-generated fictions of remote-controlled housewives that double as ATM machines and can grow bosoms at the push of a button.

The film begins with career-driven Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), a powerful TV executive at the top of her game, introducing her network's fall line-up at an affiliates' meeting. Just as she is about to wrap up her presentation, she becomes the target of an audience member who accuses her of destroying his marriage when he and his wife became contestants on Joanna's new reality TV show that uses porn stars to shake up supposedly happy marriages. Although the young man is overcome by security guards before he can do any serious harm, we quickly learn that Joanna was supposed to be his last victim in a shooting spree that started with the killing of his wife and her new partners. For fear of legal ramifications, the network decides not only to cancel the show, but also let go of Joanna, who subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown.

Disgusted with the unceremonious way in which Joanna was fired and determined to help his wife recover, Joanna's husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), quits his job (as VP with the same network) and moves his wife and their two children from steely blue and gray New York City to the pristine, pastel-colored suburban haven of Stepford- a gated community with small-town dimensions- where they are greeted by the always perky Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), the town's ambassador of good will and floral taste. Walter quickly adjusts to the new surroundings in which spouses appear to be pleasing their husbands in any way they can at every time of the day. Joanna, however, much to the dismay of her husband, is highly suspicious of this storybook community where all the women have tiny waists and pretty bosoms, wear lady-like jewelry, knee-length skirts, and high heel shoes, and appear to be oddly happy and creative with crafts.

Reluctant to give up her urban ways and dress and blend in with her new surroundings, Joanna befriends two other recent arrivals to Stepford- Bobby Markowitz (Bette Midler), a cranky, feminist self-help author whose vibrant independence constantly infuriates her frat-boyish husband Dave (Jon Lovitz), and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), a gay architect from New York, who hopes to save his rocky relationship with his conservative partner Jerry (David Marshall Grant). Together this band of misfits tries to get to the bottom of what lies beneath the perfect and strange veneer of Stepford, while their significant others live it up under the watchful eyes of Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) at the local Men's Association, a sinister mansion that is off-limits to their spouses.

Following an ill-fated attempt to open the minds of the Stepford women by starting a conscious-raising group, the trio is gradually torn apart by the community. Joanna can guess what fate awaits her, and she wants to leave Stepford with her children and husband before whatever has a grip on the community gets to her.

The stated goal of Oz and his producers, Scott Rudin and Donald De Line, and screenwriter Paul Rubin (who previously collaborated with Oz on In & Out) was to update the original movie by transforming it from a sinister parable into a perky comedy and giving it a contemporary spin by poking fun at our obsession with makeovers and perfection, introducing a gay couple into the Stepford bliss, and ultimately begging us to see beauty even in imperfection (a concept I have trouble with when looking at Nicole Kidman; I mean, where is the imperfection?).

A string of comedic episodes- with women performing aerobics in floral dresses and high heels or spinning out of control at a square dance- that culminates in a convoluted expose, however, only undermines the story's chilling premise of a male vision of a world in which women are all bodies and no brains. Where the original film walks a fine line of horror and satire as it slyly pokes fun at the response of American males to the women's lib movement and its implications to the ideals of beauty and order in a male-dominated society, in the land of Oz men have way too much fun seeing women reduced to 1950s housewives.

In the end, not even the film's star power and acting- which is thoroughly enjoyable across the board- saves the movie from self-destructing under a script that tries to recast and transform a creepy tale of suburban dystopia into a polished and contemporary satire, but only succeeds in creating a dolled-up replica of a banal, romantic farce with lots of sparks but no wit-just like a short-circuited Stepford wife that spins out of control and pirouettes across the dance floor before it collapses in front of a crowd of disbelieving onlookers.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5