The Stepford Wives (review)
The Evil That Women Do
There’s something kinda, well, insidiously Stepford-esque about this new Stepford Wives. Like how could anyone not like it, this silly fluffy comedy thing, and even if you don’t like it, it’s just a silly fluffy movie, what’s to complain about? Anti-women? How’s that? Well, my goodness, isn’t this a satire sending up the very same misogynistic attitudes that were so creepy and disgusting in the original film? It is to laugh, the idea of men killing their smart, talented, ambitious wives and replacing them with compliant Playboy-bunny robots who love housework and afternoon nookie. It has to be the stuff of humor: of course it has to be. Everyone knows that men are no longer threatened by smart, talented, ambitious women. Only total losers would want Stepford wives today.
And yet… it seems to me that it’s with total-loser Stepford husbands that all sympathies lie here. The audience has to commiserate with someone, after all, and they can’t possibly commiserate with the women anymore, not like we could 30 years ago, when poor Katharine Ross got turned into a Disney animatron merely for expressing opinions contrary to her husband’s. Not when 1) the ultimate fate of uppity women in Stepford is no secret for today’s audience, 2) because there’s no suspense, something’s gotta pad out the running time, and it might as well be obvious comedy, and 3) and who else could be the butt of sophomoric humor but ball-busting career women, preferably from New York?
Well, actually, the spineless husbands of those caricatured ball-busters could have been the object of much derision, but they, curiously, are not. Curious because, surely, it is the holders of laughably archaic attitudes we should be scorning in a satire purporting to condemn those attitudes. But no: Instead, we have put-upon, tragically emasculated men like Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick: You Can Count on Me, Election), who lives in the shadow of his wife, TV network executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman: Dogville, Cold Mountain) — she didn’t even take his name, the heartless bitch. She’s got an exciting new fall lineup for her network, a slew of reality shows that are all about women showing up men in horribly cruel ways. If any woman deserves a lesson in how to be a lady and treat men as naturally superior, it’s clearly Joanna. Or such seems to be the film’s bizarre approach to “praising” smart, strong women.
For from then on — and those are the opening moments of the film — almost every line or sight gag aimed at generating a laugh is at the expense of Joanna and women like her. The most pernicious example: After the Kresby-Eberharts move to Stepford, Connecticut, a comparison of Joanna’s Manhattan-monochromatic wardrobe to that of proper Stepford women — florals and pastels and pearls — sends Walter into an impassioned rant against the “kind of women” who wear black all the time: it ends on something like “man-hating bitches,” but I was so stunned by the noxious invective that I couldn’t bring myself to my senses soon enough to get it all down on paper. Worse, Broderick delivers the venomous words so plaintively, with such heartbreak, that it’s clear we’re meant to sympathize with his longtime tolerance of the archetype of wifely imperfection that is Joanna, and not with Joanna’s bewildered amazement at her husband’s sudden dissatisfaction with her.
She should have known, though. When Walter explains to her why he went along with the Stepford plan to replace her with a sexbot — as he must explain, for Paul Rudnick’s (Marci X, Isn’t She Great) appalling script couldn’t be any more blatant or on-the-nose — he declaims, again with the plaintiveness and the puppy-dog eyes, that having a wife who’s stronger and smarter and more successful than him makes a man feel like “we’re the girl — and we don’t like it.”
In the end, Nicole walks with him willingly to her doom, of course, because if she doesn’t give up and give in, Tom– er, Matthew will leave her. And no girl is worth enough herself not to do everything she can to avoid her man feeling like a girl himself, even if that means giving your husband a remote control that lets him pump up your boobs. Oh, the tacked-on, nonsensical twist of an ending tries to take it all back, tries to pretend that, ha ha, the movie had its fingers crossed behind its back all the time and didn’t really mean any of the terrible things it said about women. The movie likes smart, strong, successful women who make more money than it does — honestly — and nobody should have to be turned into robots at all.
Except, here’s the thing: it all devolves into a Ladies Against Women kind of thing. The movie grants women reprieve from being turned into BettyCrockernator, but then you’ve got to live with the alternative: remaining a neurotic, Prozac-popping, castrating bitch with a Milquetoast of a husband. The Stepford Wives is like an evil, sneaky scolding from a particularly obnoxious relative: You may think it’s fine to go around wearing black all the time and not baking cupcakes for your husband and running a Fortune 500 company, but don’t think you’ll be happy doing it.