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IN SHORT: A scream -- the funny kind. [Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Thematic Material & Language. 90 minutes]
Two brief things to get out of the way as we begin this review: First, never having seen the original, we were under the impression that (given the heritage of the originating author) that we'd be treated to, at minimum, a thriller. Second, we don't compare to Source Material so any earlier film incarnations of Ira Levin's novel are out of bounds.
This version of The Stepford Wives had us, and everyone around us, busting a gut. That, for those too young to know that arcane turn of the phrase, means the laughter ran hot and heavy. For as urban and urbane as our New York City base is, the old money and upturned noses still rule the hills of Connecticut, which is where the fictitious Stepford lies. Before we can get there, we get to ride in the wake of EBS television big wig programmer Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman). EBS is an all reality show network and Joanna's brainchild I Can Do Better! nearly takes the network down in flames. By the time you see the content of that show on the big screen, you'll know that you're planted for a hard core, smart as a whip comedy. Thirty seconds after that, you'll find that this comedy isn't afraid to have a bit of an edge and then you're off to the races, so to speak.
With her mind and career in tatters -- we did say this film has an edge -- and her high powered income a matter of history, beloved husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), formerly a lowly VP at her network, suggests a move away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. Thus the move for the couple and some disposable kidlets to Stepford Connecticut, a lush and luxurious community where the entryways of even the smallest of homes are larger than the average New York City apartment. It is a community that, despite the technological advances built into all the homes, seems firmly rooted in the 1950s. Happy husbands and happier wives raise their happy children in home after happy home. While it may be an oasis for the wealthy -- no paparazzi please, Stepford is a gated community to keep all the unwanted types out -- it is more so a fantasy land for battered male teen egos locked in middle aged bodies whose wives all seem to have been nick'd and tuck'd within an inch of their lives.
All of the residents of Stepford are incredibly wealthy. Many seem to have taken their profits out of the stock market before the last bubble wiped the yuppies out. It is a community almost verging on progressive -- among its residents are one Jewish family, famed book writer Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and husband Dave Markowitz (Jon Lovitz) and one gay couple, Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) and his life-partner Jerry Harmon (David Marshall Grant). The only other couple of importance are town leader Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken) and his devoted realtor spouse Claire (Glenn Close).
It doesn't take long for Joanna to notice that certain things in Stepford seem a bit off. All the men spend their days smoking stogies and downing brandy at the Stepford Men's Association, whose parking lot looks like a Hot Wheels garage for grownups with arrested child development issues -- Lamborghinis and uber-motorcycles everywhere. Club jackets and "private rooms" on the upstairs floors and what not. The wives of the community spend their days socializing in gloves and hats before donning aprons over their pastel colored spin-and-you'll-see-a-petticoat dresses to prepare a lavish and nourishing meal for their men folk. In their off time, they discuss the vital and important issues of the day, like how best to use pinecones to establish a festive Christmas theme and which aisle in the local supermarket holds the best values.
Thirty years ago, you would have thought some evil genius had turned 'em all into robots. This being a new millennium, we assumed that they're all Xanax'd and Zoloft'd out of their minds, with fashion design and lifestyle tips implanted by famed cable teevee tipster Brini Maxwell via the 1950s films, seen in the opening credits, that purport to show the luxurious life of the future home maker. Once Joanna and Bobbie and Roger get to the bottom of the mystery, hey, gloves and hats make more than a fashion statement after all!
The Stepford Wives works because, at its core, it is a story of brain fried city dwellers who yearn for the peace and tranquility of their imaginings of the lives of the rich and famous. Its script doesn't mind tossing the occasional dis at anything within firing range. But when all is said and done, it's still a love story, even if the sci-fi elements that are buried under the surface feel incredibly lightweight. More than anything else, The Stepford Wives is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. You could thank writer Paul Rudin all you'd like but if you don't give proper kudos to director Frank Oz, the man who spent decades with his fist up Miss Piggy and Yoda's, uh, that isn't hitting the page the way we meant it to, you'd be short changing the man's abilities. <g> Oz brings his muppet-trained comedy thinking to this play field as well, even if there's not a square inch of felt to be seen in the set design.
For those that don't watch the femme cable channels, the aforementioned Brini Maxwell is a transvestite whose program is about as straight and serious a guide to "proper" manners and housekeeping tips as anything "Heloise" dished out in her newspaper column. The Stepford Wives, thanks to an A-level cast and an incredibly focused piece of work by Glenn Close finds its comedic stride by avoiding anything even remotely camp or gay. We're sure anyone who want to see those elements in the film will be able to. We were to busy laughing to care.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Stepford Wives, he would have paid . . .
A fine and very funny flick for us grownups. See it.
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