by Ray Pride

Things I learned from watching the unnecessary remake of 1975's mostly forgotten The Stepford Wives:

There's less to fear from the future of robots than from robotic comedies. At the age of 60, the man behind the voice of Yoda isn't that wise. $95 million doesn't buy what it used to. And: Any movie that runs less than 90 minutes without counting the end credits and concludes in Larry King's studio is made from a place of desperation.

Frank Oz, whose last two pictures as director were 2001's The Score and 1999's Bowfinger, has never been a master of tonal variation -- in fact, most of his movies suffer from a professionalism verging on mere mediocrity. There's not much memorable he's able to do with the grafting of screenwriter Paul Rudnick's campy quips onto novelist Ira Levin's science fiction conceits with a dollop of the kind of dunderheaded bad taste that sank 1992's Death Becomes Her.

The Stepford Wives suffers the fate of many recent troubled studio productions: out come the knives, both in terms of rotten advance word and in terms of cutting the movie down to as short a length as possible. Anyone expecting a titanic stink bomb is disappointed as well, as whatever's wrong with the movie is buffed down to simple inconsequentiality.

While the preview print I saw was notably washed out, Nicole Kidman seems lit for drabness instead of her usual porcelain luminosity. Oz punishes her with an early close-up where she chews her way through several angry emotions that's almost as painfully extended as a similarly strenuous close-up of Renee Zellweger in Down With Love.

Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a high-powered network reality television executive, one of whose productions leads to a shooting spree by a cuckolded victim (Mike White, always the eager psycho). One nervous breakdown later, she and her underling husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick) move to a pristine gated community in Connecticut. A boring suburb. An unmemorable suburb. A suburb that no one behind the camera has bothered to imagine. Enter the robotic Stepford wives, led by insanely cheery Glenn Close. (Why do you want to hide the puppies whenever she wants into a scene nowadays?)

Broderick's as uncharismatic as ever, and even Christopher Walken is uncharacteristically dull as Close's husband and the man who came up with the plan to reduce powerful women to complacent bimbos.

The Stepford Wives may have been intended as a satire of something or other in its earliest stumbling toward the screen, but the result on screen doesn't have enough depth to make you understand why anyone would have spent a year or more of their lives working on the thing, except as a numbing job. There's simply not enough content to figure out if the filmmakers think they're toying with consumerism, with misogyny, or any other worthy topic.

More catty than funny, Rudnick's dialogue has intermittent zip, particularly with one especially stereotyped gay character, but like his work with the funny Jeffrey and In & amp; Out and the painful Marci X, the one-liners are mostly little more than soap bubbles in a stiff breeze. It's camp without sting, and notably tacky.

Oz doesn't do much with production or costume design. The wives (including Faith Hill) are uniformly dreary, like second-rate drag queens dreaming of becoming Southwestern flight attendants. (You can imagine the training being a lot like Oz's direction must be: "Be funny! Be desperately funny!"

And as for horror, any half-dozen of Katie Couric's grins are scarier.

But there was one line I loved, heard off screen as one of the Stepford husbands dispatches his wife after vigorous and very loud sex: "Baby, grab me some nachos."

Wait for the video but pour on the cheese. Yum.

Publication date: 06/10/04

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