The Stepford Wives Organization reviews “The Stepford Wives” (2004 Movie Version)

The following synopsis / summary / review has been written by The Stepford Wives Organization at StepfordWife.com

First thing’s first. Let’s get the elephant out of the room before we begin: the monstrous plot hole in Frank Oz’s 2004 Stepford Wives is the primary complaint heard around the world. Viewers who would normally pan the film trashed it mercilessly on this point alone. So let’s get it our out the way.

In Ira Levin’s 73 novella and Bryan Forbes’s film adaptation, the Stepford wives were robots. In Oz’s version, they were confusingly neither robots nor human beings. At one point, Sarah (Faith Hill) blows a fuse during a square dance, and starts shooting off sparks, spinning at an inhuman speed before collapsing in a loud bang. In another, a Stepford wife issues money from her mouth like an ATM machine, after her husband sticks his ATM card in her mouth. The defiant Bobbie (Bette Midler) eventually gets replaced by a robot who can keep her hand indefinitely over a burning stove. We are shown that both Joanna and the gay guy Roger, is introduced to their robotic body double before they are scheduled to be killed and replaced. Yet, at the end of the movie, the protagonist goes to the control room and destroys the “nerve center,” suddenly disarming the mind-control chip implant from all the wives (and Roger), returning these supposed robots back to normal human beings? Therefore, the first ¾ of the movie leads us to believe the humans are done away with, only to be replaced by their robotic double. The final quarter tells us that it’s really a mind control scheme, where a chip is inserted into the human brain to control their thought patterns. Even then, the wives are shown to crush the metal remote controls with their bare hands- an act as only one with robotic strength can.

If you listen to the commentary track on the dvd, it was mentioned that when the movie was initially screened before a test audience, they didn’t like the robot angle. What compounded the problem was the near the end of the shoot, Frank Oz had to appease Paramount. Also, the great acting job Glenn Close did complicated the timing of the plot, moving the climax from the deprogramming of the wives to her fantastic speech. Simply put, Oz lost control of the situation, and let a number of external factors take over. There was the huge budget, the star-studded cast, and the fact that he was probably more used to working with puppets.

This, is the Achilles’ Heel that has clouded an otherwise fantastic screenplay by writer Paul Rudnick. If one wanted to bypass this plot hole, she would have to pick one reality over the other and stick to her story. In other words, either assume that some wives were killed, and replaced by robots as an earlier experimentation, while others are fitted with a newer, kinder form of Stepfordization, where conversion meant a brisk, more portable procedure of implanting a chip. The other alternative would be to simply accept that all the real wives had been done away with, and replaced with robots, and that what we get at the end, is a group of machines who had to be put down (off screen of course). That doesn’t explain why Bobbie and Roger survived.

So I think the Stepford robot technology coexisting alongside the chip implanted wives is the most comfortable one, if you wanted to look past this gaping plot hole.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the movie.

In a way, this 2004 remake is both a re-reading of the original 1975 film and the logical conclusion of the made-for-TV movies throughout the 80s and 90s. The franchise has come full circle and returned to the heart of the Levine’s social satire.

Joanna (Kidman) is fired from her work as a high-powered tv executive. She has a breakdown and is subsequently brought to Stepford by her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick). In the updated Stepford town, we find that homosexuals are now welcomed. The frumpy Victorian clothing is gone, replaced by Laura Ashley floral print sun-dresses. The barnyard dance (discussed in the original 1975 film, but never shown) is depicted here.

New questions of conformity and assimilation arises. Which gay (male) partner would become the wife? In a politically-correct, inclusionary world, who do we now assimilate, and who are the bad people? Why, Republican conservatives of course! In a terse witty nod, screen playwright Rudnick shows the white homosexual male one step closer to acceptance than the wild Jewish female intellectual (the ladies’ book club meeting in the garden).

When Joanna awakens, her hard “Manhattan career bitch” in black persona tours the Stepford residences courtesy of the Welcome Wagon Lady Claire, a role played so deftly by Glenn Close, she steals the entire movie. Her husband Mike (Christopher Walken) is the Stepford Men’s Association patriarch, a man’s man to whom the entire town follows and abides by.

The usual arguments of career vs. homemaker are reiterated. (Walter: “Your kids barely know you, are marriage is falling apart.”) Joanna makes an attempt to be a good homemaker. When the geekish, nerd men at the Stepford Association hears this, they knowingly smile.

One night the fey effeminate gay partner gets introduced to his Stepford replacement. The next morning, he runs as an ultra-conservative senator for Stepford. This is a pivotal scene for us, because it inverts a reading of Levine’s social satire into a meta-satire that pokes fun at itself, a device utilized by Levine, and Bryan Forbes cleverly inverting Levine observations of feminism in the 1975 original. While the “Republican” conservative set is lampooned on the surface (“Well, I believe in Stepford, America, and the power of prayer” while the Star Spangled Banner blares in the background), it shows Joanna and Bobbi distraught at how the gay man no longer fits the stereotype they want him to be. This self-interrogation of indoctrinated social identities is a powerful message hidden within the comedy. It illustrates that even with freedom, we are still imprisoned by expectations.  Listen to the exchange that follows in the next scene:

Walter: So that’s why we have to leave Stepford? I’m not following.

Joanna: OK. Before, Roger was witty and stylish and ironic.

Walter: And I’m sure he still is.

Joanna: No! Now he’s making speeches in a Brooks Brothers suit.

Walter: Hey, there’s lots of ways to be gay. Don’t try to make him into a stereotype.

Joanna: Bobbie is right, and she’s leaving too. This place does something to people. All of the women are always busy and perfect and smiling, and all of the men are always happy.

Walter: And that’s a problem because…?

Joanna: Because it’s not normal, Walter. It’s… It’s not the world. It’s not us.

Joanna goes on to discover that several of the Stepford Wives were formerly women in high powered positions, including CEO’s and judges. Next to go is Bobbi, who changes into a cheery, neat-as-a-pin homemaker. Joanna goes to the Men’s Association to get her children and leave Dodge. Here is the next clever meta-satirical scene, commenting on how modern women- when they are finally at the top of the traditional patriarchal paradigm – now see absolutely nothing wrong with the power structure they’ve been crying as unfair oppression of the sexes for years:

Walter: Ever since we met,you’ve beaten me at everything. You’re better educated. You’re stronger, you’re faster. You’re a better dancer,a better tennis player. You’ve always earned at least six figures more than I could ever dream of. You’re a better speaker, a better executive. You’re even better at sex. Don’t deny it.

Joanna: I wasn’t going to.

Walter: Well, don’t I get anything?

Joanna: You got me.

Walter: No, I got to hold your purse. I got to tell the kids that you’d be late again. I got to tell the press that you had no comment. I got to work for you.

Joanna: With me.

Walter: Under you. All of us. We married wonder women. Supergirls. Amazon queens. Well, you know what that makes us?

Joanna: Smart, worthy, lucky.

Walter: We’re the wuss. The wind beneath your wings. Your support system. – We’re the girl.

SPOILER ALERT AHEAD:

When it is finally disclosed that the entire Stepford operation is, in fact the “brainchild” of the Welcome Wagon Lady, and not that of her husband’s, Glenn Close’s scene becomes both the heart and the climax of this updated version of the Stepford Wives. It shows that when women have reached the logical end of their road for call for absolute equality – with the consequential cost of incapacitated and effete men – the much anticipated egalitarian ecstasy was absent.  There was no Utopian balance among the sexes. For power to be relinquished, one side had to give.  And once that happened, what once was, can never be again.

Joanna: All of this, Mike, the wives, Stepford,this was all your idea?

Claire: Yes. All I wanted was a better world. A world where men were men and women were cherished and lovely….A world of romance and beauty,of tuxedos and chiffon,a perfect world.

Joanna: But you were married to a robot

Claire: The perfect man. And all I wanted was to make you, all of you, into perfect women.

Joanna: We don’t need to be perfect.How could you do this to us?

Claire: Because I was just like you. Overstressed, overbooked,under-loved. I was the world’s foremost brain surgeon and genetic engineer. I had top-secret contracts with the Pentagon, Apple and Mattel. I was driven.Exhausted. Until late one night, I came home to find Mike…with Patricia.

So the saga has come full circle (or has it?) What started as the Women’s Consciousness-Raising, bra-burning era has traipsed its full journey, ending with women liberated, shattering the glass ceiling, and wanting not only to be successful women, but successful mothers. But the men disappeared somewhere along the ride, and we found that when we re-invented ourselves in their mold, they had no where to cast themselves. And successful women returned to empty homes with truant, absent kids. And the sign posted at the end of this journey read:

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

return to The Complete Stepfordwife.com guide to the Stepford Movies

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