Pop Culture

The strain shows in ‘The Stepford Wives’

Everyone tries too hard in the latest version of Ira Levin’s novel, “The Stepford Wives,” which inspired one semi-classic 1975 movie and three forgotten made-for-TV sequels. A clever, creepy feminist satire three decades ago, Levin’s story, about a Connecticut suburb populated by robotic housewives, has been so recklessly revised that the new movie loses its way long before the halfway mark.

The strain is visible in most of the performances, including those of Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick, as a workaholic couple who settle in mysteriously perky Stepford, but it’s especially noticeable in Frank Oz’s erratic direction and Paul Rudnick’s uncertain screenplay.

Oz and Rudnick are either too much in awe of the original material or they simply don’t trust it. It’s possible that they just decided that it needed a thorough update — they’ve thrown in plenty of contemporary jokes about aerobic workouts, gay Republicans, Microsoft, bulimia, SUVs, Christmas collectibles, cutthroat office politics — but the additions rarely feel organic.

The script starts off like a nervous remake of “Network,” with Kidman playing Joanna Eberhart, a network executive as dotty and frantic as Faye Dunaway’s ratings-obsessed television queen in that 1976 movie. When she gets fired, Joanna has a nervous breakdown and retires to the suburbs with bland hubby Walter.

Glenn Close, a smile firmly pasted on her face, turns up as part of the Stepford welcoming committee, and soon she’s joined by Bette Midler, whose frumpy manner is eventually replaced by a shockingly Barbie-like persona. Then comes Stepford’s ominous parade of chauvinistic husbands, among them Jon Lovitz and Christopher Walken, who prefer their wives to be submissive and bimbo-ish.

Midler has her rowdy moments, especially before her character turns robotic, while Walken, as always, projects such authority that he makes each of his scenes count. But the other actors are treated so wastefully that you suspect their key scenes are missing. Lovitz is barely present. While Close’s character provides the major new twist to the story, there’s no credible buildup to it; it feels tacked-on and desperate.

It’s no secret that “The Stepford Wives” was less than a smooth production. Entertainment Weekly called it “problem-plagued,” while The New York Times recently reported that scenes were reshot as late as last month, and “the film has been one of the most troubled projects in years.”

Only the opening credits sequence, which spoofs 1950s television commercials for kitchen appliances, seems completely assured. It’s the perfect setup for a sharp satire about consumerism and women’s outdated roles, but there’s no real followup.

Bryan Forbes’ 1975 adaptation of Levin’s book was never a blockbuster, and many critics dismissed it at the time, but it at least seemed to have been made by people who knew what they were doing. Oz and Rudnick’s 93-minute update is so juvenile and scattershot, especially when it reaches its fizzled finale, that it seems substantially longer than Forbes’ 115-minute original.