There are a handful of films that for some reason or another just end up with a bad wrap, I often argue that this is due to choosing and awful time to be released, or having an actor whose offscreen persona manages to be so distancing as to affect ticket sales or the reputation of the film, fortunately for this remake of The Stepford Wives it appears to be the aforementioned issue of timing, something that can be transcended as we look at the film nearly a decade later. Having never seen the original, although I am quite interested based on the DVD cover alone, it is quite clear that the revamp of The Stepford Wives is not a perfect film, however, I do not believe that anyone was expecting it to be such a thing. The satirical jabs set-up in the film are often to misdirected or on-the-nose to really become effective and the mixture of veteran actors and comedic performers causes a clear divide between film and viewer, making it hard to become wholly involved with Frank Oz's narrative. Of course, as a out and out satire it is not fair to criticize these points too heavily, because within this particular cultural framework tradition and the rules of filmmaking are certainly allowed to be undermined, yet, while viewing the film one cannot help but feel that it is falling victim to over cutting of scenes and key plot points at the hands of producers. It also cannot be ignored that this film was released in the wake of a post-9/11 hyper conservative American landscape that seemed to sop up anything spouted from the good ol'boy president in office. Furthermore, The Stepford Wives does a rather intriguing thing with feminist theory that, to some degree, undermines some of the key figures and commentaries of second wave feminist rhetoric and could damn well be a third wave feminist masterpiece, in so much, as it confronts issues of intersectionality, in the very fact that the film ignores intersectional bodies, excluding two gay characters. This movie is certainly above middle of the road quality and deserves reconsideration, if only for Christopher Walken probably being given the most appropriate role of his entire acting career.
The Stepford Wives begins with an awards ceremony for a major television network headed by Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) whose female-empowering television has become a means for her own iconic cultural place, yet when one of her shows causes a man to lose his wife, he exacts revenge by attempting to shoot her during the ceremony. The insanity of this situation leads her to be released from the network, which also causes her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick) to step down from his position as vice-president and suggest they move to the suburbs. Along with their two children the family moves to Stepford, the hyper-idyllic gated community in where the ideal image of woman is ripped right out of a 1950's home decor catalogue. The gender divide is rather clearly established within Stepford, women are to be subservient to their husbands, while they shoot off to a large mansion to enjoy the masculine pleasures of life, most of which revolve around scotch and sports. Realizing the absurdity of this lifestyle, Joanna befriends the Jewish anti-oppression writer Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and the outspoken gay male Roger (Roger Bart) who is attempting to meet at a middle ground with his gay republican partner by living in the suburbs. The trio makes their own world within Stepford, all the while the community pretending not to notice, although their condemnation is rather obvious. It is not until Roger disappears one night and becomes inexplicably altered into the ideal male political partner that Joanna becomes suspicious, a fear that is reaffirmed when Bobbie turns into a blonde housewife days later. It is revealed that Mike (Christopher Walken) a former employee at Microsoft has discovered a technology that allows men to implant chips into their wives heads to make them submissive and able to reaffirm their place of power in a traditional hegemony. Walter wrestles with whether or not to submit Joanna to this treatment, which leads to a climactic garden party in which all assumptions of submissiveness, power and whose hands are really in control of this idyllic community come into question. Needless to say oppression is completely undermine and the power of the Stepford syndrome is eventually removed.
I mentioned that this film probably suffered from coming out at a terrible time. The American landscape in 2004 certainly did not want to question anything, serious fears of another terrorist attack still gripped our nation and to question anything our government did in the name of our protection was tantamount to claiming to be a communist during the Cold War, as such the undermining of the ideal American image, no matter how illogical, was a death sentence during this time and, I would contest, that The Stepford Wives suffers from this mind frame. Were it to have come out in the past five years, it would probably have been an entirely different story. Another issue arises in that many people seem to dismiss this is a feminist friendly film, sure on a cinematic level it does not display anything but white , privileged bodies, however, I would contest that the ironic and undermining ways in which they do so is entirely intended to draw attention to issues of intersectionality. Even the gay characters depicted are so overdramatized as to be a point of critique. Furthermore, and spoilers ensue, another attack comes in that the main villain in this film is that of a woman seeking traditional values, many feminist thinkers would seemingly have a problem with this depiction, but it should not be ignored that many women do internalize traditional patriarchal values and heavily effect the ability of progress. However, the character in this scenario specifically seems to be doing so because she was once a powerful woman who could not handle the stresses and strain of constant work and pressure. It seems again on a passive glance to suggest latent femininity, however, it is wrong to read the film as such. The women who desire the suburban housewife lifestyle of submissiveness are no less stressful and have very little to show for it, the classic cult of domesticity at work. The woman who desires to have simplicity in making a family in the suburbs is blindly following the male patriarchal oppression because her stress has opened up a chance to internalize a false ideal. Sure the film is a bit tenuous in how it depicts this idea, but I promise you it is in there somewhere.
Key Scene: The introduction of Mike is a pretty funny scene and really sets up the illogical way in which Stepford presents itself for the remainder of the film.
This is an exceptionally cheap movie to purchase and while it is not great anyone who seriously enjoys discussing feminist theory or theories of oppression should own this movie as it provides for a great point of discussion. This is also secretly a horror film, something people seem reticent to admit.