RIORI Vol 3, Installment 68: Frank Oz’ “The Stepford Wives” (2004)

The Players…

Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Roger Bart, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, with Faith Hill for some reason.

The Story…

After power player, big deal TV exec Joanna suffers a nervous breakdown (as well as getting “let go”), she and her hubs Walt decide to get away from it all. Leave the Big City for the quaint suburbs, get away from the scramble of urban chaos.

Walt found an ideal place. A subdivision in Stepford, CT, far enough away from what ails Joanna. A nice place, populated by nice people. Especially the resident women whom are quite nice.

Very nice, in fact.

Very nice.

Joanna’s scared by this.

Very scared.

The Rant…

Let’s, you and me, talk about feminism.

*collective groans*

Now don’t collectively groan. The thing ain’t always about Gloria Steinem, unshaved armpits and Gloria Steinem’s unshaved armpits. Really. Overplaying my hand outright, I was the only male in my college’s Feminist Collective.

Why? Uh-oh, a story. Remember where you are. I get to editorialize from three to infinite paragraphs alluding ever so slightly to this week’s film proper, and you gratefully accept the bitegaurd and smile through your tears. Okay. Much thanks. Now into the pits. So to speak.

Back in school I was a philosophy wonk. Shocker. I attended so many of such classes I earned a minor in the field. Shocker. I swamped my brain learning about how others thought and felt. Figured if I gleaned onto enough smarter people than me, their thoughts might bring about some scent of enlightenment.

Well, nope. I just learned how jerky people could be. Folks who signed up for either a quick, nice, subjective grade or an opportunity to spew bile and generate fear and trembling. I did both.


I was the eldest of three children. Me the son buffeted by two younger sisters. I was and still am courteous enough to lower the toilet seat, even though I live alone now. Don’t ask. I’ll just shrug. But that being said, with Tweedldumb and Tweedledumber being at my hip, I was in the prime position to get exposed to all the trials girls had to deal with in our polite society. Cutting to the chase, I had to  instruct my middle sis how to use a tampon from the other side of the bathroom door against her squealing in embarrassment. Against my squealing in embarrassment. Just make sure the string hangs out.

Too much? Then you never had two sisters. Don’t get me started on the proper way to shave the legs. I was then learning how to not chop up my face. One would assume I learned something from that other than Cottonelle tabs make for the best impromptu bandages.

I’ll stop now.

Back to this Feminist Collective. I took this women’s studies class as part of the minor and as partly out of curiosity. I knew a lot about the male psyche already, and after reading wads of Sartre and hearing about his philosopher non-wife Simone de Beauvoir, I figured I’d set a toe in the deep end of the pool. The class was pretty cool. Not surprising, feminist philosophy was quite different than the overwhelmingly male schools of thought. That and a lot more political/steeped in social commentary. Makes sense. “The second sex” had gotten the short shrift in…well almost everything when it came to deconstructing social hierarchies, mores and what it means to be…you. The “you” in that case were the dozens of young women who had signed on. I was, like, one of four guys in the class. Got the feeling the other three were just fulfilling a credit. Just.

Save one guy. Memory is lost on me what his name was, but he was a real piece of work. Quite the provocateur. I wasn’t sure if his blatant chauvinism was genuine or he just liked stirring the soup. Either way his endless prattle did evil wonders in generating discourse. Well, rancor would be a more apt term. God, he used to get the class so riled with his snottiness; his self-rightoeus notions about how women thought and how women did and maybe he just could never score a date without a handy-dandy chloroform soaked hankie at the ready. At any rate, his comments were oddly well thought out, albeit sub-50s idea of who goes where. He may have made some blatantly sexist comments about man and God and law, but he was articulate. Actually, as my daughter is wont to say, “cringey” is a better term. He baited all the “serious” feminists in the class (including the prof) into raving loons. Well-meaning, dedicated loons, almost confirming his accusations. When he got going, I kept quiet, rolled my eyes, grew bored and heard my tuition going down the drain. Still a cool class, though, which led to this whole Feminist Collective thing and how I ended up being the only male member (get it?) of the group.

I was that enthused by the class, and if only to thumb my nose at the guy’s ancient and obnoxious views that cluttered the class I signed on to the professor’s roster of her idea of a casual klatch of like-minded casual feminists. Just to hang out, discuss philosophy and go to relevant performances like readings, “happenings” and concert dates. Happenings like the Take Back The Night rally, promoting rape awareness and the occasional Ani DiFranco club date. That was the time that I really felt part of the group and not some anomaly. Namely, not chasing well-educated tail.

The Collective wasn’t a large group. The class had like almost 40 students. Our mere think tank had like a dozen members, and me the rogue monkey in tow. But me and the females got on well, shared ideas freely and got well-caffinated often. That was status quo at the DiFranco gig we travelled to (with the prof along to make it legit. She scored the tickets). The major topic of conversation wasn’t de Beauvoir or how to properly pronounce her name. It was “that guy.” He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. I defended him as best I could. Poorly.

Now I ain’t saying I agreed with his palsied, hidebound barbs. I am saying he offered a tonic to the all to often heady tones that bubble up in any college philo class, feminist or otherwise. My worthy vagina-owning constituents didn’t really agree. He was a dope, a pig, a disruption. All true, but he did have the right to speak his crude mind. It made for lively class discussion. When he’d shut his trap.

They suffered my treason well, and laughed at me. Hard to not be humble as a guy when poked at by very non-guys. I still argued the value of his discourse. I was outnumbered, and their flak almost, almost justified my argument. Their vitriol came perilously close to confirming the squirmy worm’s accusations, and here the sole male in a Feminist Collective I was automatically outnumbered and very, very wrong. Still an interloper with fellow classmates for a full semester. Still a guy. By proxy, I couldn’t properly absorb the women’s outrage, nor could they like the cut of my jib.

DiFranco eventually took the stage. And all went away, seemingly forgiving.

But is that the trick? Regarding the eternal “battle of the sexes” was I off the mark passively defending the dork’s views, or was I just stuck with my XY chromosome, inherently sympathetic to the “first sex?” It was the whole “nature vs nurture” argument, despite me ultimately plopping myself into a group of educated, driven females out of curiosity. When you think about it, twenty years on it sounds like naivety and Fail.

Then again, it kinda now jibes with the subversive message of Oz’ adaptation into film for an umpteenth time Ira Levin’s classic cautionary/feminist tale of subservient women serving dismissive men their every want and need no matter how petty or idful. Did I really tag along for enlightenment, or did I arrive with a notion of impressed intelligent women with my gumption?

Maybe a bit of both. I’m a guy. We have that genetic imperative we’re almost always trying to suppress. We want to understand, even empathize with the other, but then again we refer to women as “the other” so that’s a strike. This disconnect between the sexes, be it philosophical, domestic or genetic creates all sorts of delicious tension. It’s based on the unknown, the misunderstood. The perceived understood.

Guys want to assume/know what “the other” is thinking. Why? Talk truth guys, disregarding the DiFranco gig (which was great, BTW), we all wanna know what they want so that they may know what we want. In simpler terms, it goes like this: a woman wants a man to satisfy her every want and need. A man wanys every woman to satisfy his one want and need.

No matter how much I took away from that class and my naive involvement in Syracuse University’s short-lived Feminist Collective, no matter how much I marched in Take Back The Night, no matter how much I debated Adrienne Rich’s bilious screeds I’m still a male. In hindsight I was “passing.” Here’s the ugly truth: most men are passing (again: in order to try and understand the fairer sex as a means to sample real sex. Sorry. Cat’s outta the bag. With or without a first pressing of Not A Pretty Girl on hand.

That piggy guy may have been piggy, but at least he was honest. At least within his ancient male sense of entitlement. But truth be told, all guys no matter how (weakly) enlightened have that churning to keep at bay. And we’re not talking about the baffling, signature morning wood phenom. We’re talking about convincing female to what we guys are all screaming about.

Namely, crude and honest, park it.

Maybe somewhere near Stepford, CT…

Being a career climber can get exhausting, Especially when you’re a first tier, go-getter, cast iron bitch like Joanna Eberhart (Kidman). Her high-ranking cachet of money-making TV producer has worked well for seasons, indicated by the cracks at the corners of her eyes. Her eager fall season plans of plenty of “reality shows” wrestling with the age-old “battle of the sexes” dynamic. It’s a formula that works well, until it doesn’t. And when it eventually doesn’t epically, Joanna gets let go and she let’s go. Hence all the screaming.

Her husband Walter (Broderick), kind nebbish that he is decides to scoop up Joanna and their family to relocate to Connecticut. To get out of the City, leave their broken, exhaustive urban lifestyle behind. Quaint suburbia awaits, the best outlet.

Joanna ain’t quite cool with this. The suburbs? Well-groomed lawns and bake sales? Nuh-uh. But Walter has spoken and Joanna needs to decompress, spend time with her alienated family, soak up some sun. Get her proverbial sh*t together. And Stepford’s welcome wagon is only so gracious to help.

The wagoneer is Claire Wellington (Close), so friendly and squeaky clean as she. She assures the new family that they’ll fit right in with such cheer it’s not so much disarming as disabling. She assures the wounded Joanna will love it here, with Stepford’s well-groomed lawns and bake sales. Every step’s a yes here in Stepford.

That gets to Joanna, as well as Walter. Opposite ends of the spectrum, though. Joanna meets and greets with the local wives, and all of them a very nice. Vacant, subservient and kinda dumb, but very nice all the same. As well as all competing in the World Series of Barbie look-alike contests.

This ain’t Joanna’s scene. Neither is it Bobbi’s (Midler), a bawdy writer who’s quick to take Joanna’s elbow and warn her about the eerie kindness that oozes from these willing voidoids. Not is all that it seems here in Stepford she warns. It always feels like inches away from taking the Kool-Aid the women folk, and that clandestine Men’s Club on the hill bids ill will to any female with a working brain.

For Stepford’s husbands this sounds like an ideal place to hang. Walter, too. The division between the sexes is cut in stone here.

Good thing strung out Joanna packed her jackhammer…

Another movie, another 21st Century remake. How novel and yawn.

I might have mentioned this before here, but with the blatant proliferation of movie remakes, reboots sequels and prequels mostly becoming swift moneymakers in our new dawn (a flying in the face of a generation raised on the Internet, all the knowledge in the world custom delivered to your iPhone) that present impatient audiences are so potentially informed and so much more uniformed, only pursuing data that sates their ADD FaceBook ego, that Hollywood has been swift to tap the ignorance of the Information Generation to smack ’em upside the jaw with weak scripts and derivative acting to invite movie gold. Did you know that Gone In Sixty Seconds was a remake? Neither did you.

I think I might have mentioned that before.

Anyway, I’ll reel it in. This version of The Stepford Wives is another in a long line of remakes and reinterpretations of Ira Levin’s seminal novel about crushing feminism in general and women in specific outright. The original 1975 (yes, they did have movies then pre-Netflix) version was a chilling, harrowing deconstruction of both chained-to-the-stove and it-can’t-happen-here. The film was about gender roles, slavery and Katherine Ross getting shared sh*tless.

The 2004 adaptation lost that. Oz traded in passive feminist theory for black comedy. Very black. We’re  looking soot here. It had its moments, but ultimately this version of Wives played funny against chilling. It works in fits and starts, but the end result is for lacking. A lot like that dolt in the class, Oz tries to ram down a point bathed in screwball and the terrifying message gets lost.

That might’ve been the point. This take on Wives has the barest scintilla of social commentary the original was awash with. Unsure why. What I took away from the Feminist Collective is that the magnifying glass on this sort of class war is sorely needed in this age of…well, everything in our media-saturated sub-existance, where the divides are greater than ever and why I can’t find a decent parking spot at Wegman’s and where the hell did the remote go and why am I so bothered by such trivial sh*t?

Where was I? We were talking about sexual politics? We were? Can’t recall. Must’ve been hip deep in checking my FaceBook feed. Anyone seen my wife lately?

Sorry. But here director Yoda had a prime slab of real estate to make a wave and opted instead to halt any social commentary and instead drench brain-dead audiences with coal-black humor lost on folks who don’t recognize coal-black humor. No shock I did notice, both within and without, still this Wives wasn’t all bad. Just not fleshed out very well. Like I said, it works in starts and sputters, but the endgame feels like us viewers missed something. Like coherence.

I had to give Oz props for keeping the funny, sometimes goofy atmosphere creepy. The air of “all is not as it seems” hangs over Wives like a fluffy pall. There’s a slow burn in effect here that the unknowing might find odd, if not unsettling. We’re so damned cynical these days…okay I’m so damned cynical that what spell was cast here wasn’t easily cast aside. Namely, was Oz trying to skewer general notions of polite gender equality? Or was he trying to satirize feminism’s shortcomings outright? Both questions feel out of joint here, since the director was just attempting a flick that was blackly funny.

Simply put, kinda, is that don’t look too deeply here, but keep the blinders off. Be aware of the message, but don’t buy into it. The movie’s kind of cartoonish, but was that part of said (passing) message? Take away what you would, but it’s hard to deny the sexual politics under the microscope here, even with a kooky delivery.

Speaking of delivery (and since Wives is also sort of a warped character study), our cast fits perfectly with the story. It’s in a rather square peg fashion; juxtaposing Alex Forrest against June Cleaver on PCP is a prime example of mixin’ the colors. Her Claire is f*cking creepy; actually almost the flipside of Fatal Attraction. She seduces with nice, a pastered-on smile and a hidden agendum so deep it’s painfully obvious. Another is letting stuttering Walken be the penultimate word on male rights/cult leader (then again, that may not be that much of a stretch). Kidman’s not known for comedy well, but take a nod to To Die For and you can jibe where her neurotic Joanna comes from. She does well here. Funnier than Eyes Wide Shut anyway.

There’s this degree of corniness that acts as an ideal portent. I’m talking foreshadowing here. All is too well in Stepford, the mirror reverse of Joanna’s Big City. And she resists almost every step. I must nod to her trepidation to take this idyll at face value. We the audience know at the outset that Stepford’s f*cked up, well before the Claire Clones come to the fore. The slow burn I spoke of is Joanna’s deconstructing the mystery and discovering/succumbing to the horrible truth. She doesn’t want to be a part of Stepford, she doesn’t want to mingle with these weird locals. The only person who smells of her lost cosmo, go-getter life is Bobbi who in turn becomes Sherlock to her Watson. Granted, Wives is a dark comedy, but it also has the air of a mystery, which is rather cool.

Again, we the audience know something’s rotten in Denmark, or at least this hamlet (ha!), but when Bobbi and Joanna take to task to getting the meat of the matter, it’s rather fun. Give Oz credit: he keeps the cards close to his chest, and when the big reveal hits it’s pretty…revealing (trick: Joanna looked better as a brunette despite Kidman’s natural strawberry blonde. It’s the small things). In a silly way, all of it casts a weird, big budget Addams Family ep aswirl with lo-fi feminist derring-do/how petulant, middle schooly guys can get when allowed to get. Quite the cocktail.

Sure. Weak social commentary, muddled by bleak humor, eventually screaming witch trial at demon technology (that’s not really a spoiler, it’s just a great endgame to a very demented game overall). However, Wives well indeed has it charms. It’s not a great flick, but that’s if you look for said Steinem-esque pits. Or ever spent and airless hour in a basement classroom with 40 pissy feminist philo women who just want to speak their minds. Only to have a single doosh continuously drag the needle across the record.

There’s a mean streak belying Wives, you bet. But it’s funny, vacant and rather dark. I’ve been lamenting the overt lack of social commentary in lieu of twisted jokes, but maybe that might me subversive enough in its own right to warrant Wives a nod at the horror Ross faced three decades hence. We have a mixed bag here, and you take away with what you wish based on your outlook.

Mine? I’ve read too much Ettinger and heard too much DiFranco to be unbiased. Is my worldview of feminist theory is already very sound? Very, but not valid. I don’t want to fall into the camp that wanker lorded over in my class, but then again I listened to him as much as the women. I guess I wouldn’t’ve appreciated Wives as well as I did without both sides of the coin.

But a doosh is a doosh, and I’d rather not consider his frame of mind to deeply. Either my mind would’ve turned to putty, my GPA would suffer (more than it did) or have a gang of solid women friends vote me off the island. But I kinda enjoyed Wives. Not for Mike Wellington’s awkward charm (or Walken’s awkward charm, for that matter) or the classic dark humor. No. I liked the somewhat objective platter, doubtless inviting my viewpoint via a chummy DiFranco show that I saw gratis.

I’d hate myself for denying that. I already harbor loathing on the other side of the bathroom door.

Strings out!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Take it for what it is in small doses: a black comedy wobbling on the edge of social commentary. You want feminist theory? Best go look elsewhere. Like a few castrating paragraphs from Adrienne Rich. Mike Wellington? Take…heed.

Stray Observations…

  • “…That was usually Hank.”
  • Saw that scream coming, and it was damn good, too.
  • As my kid regards my music collection she’d regard this film as “cringey.”
  • “Did you finish the laundry?” “No, I finished a chapter.” Snap.
  • “Ever since I was a little girl.”
  • Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Okay. Shut up. And…
  • “She gives singles!”
  • You were right, Jill. Cringey.

Next Installment…

Hugh Jackman travels between time and space in search of The Fountain Of Youth. Turns out to be a tree. No wonder Ponce deLeon couldn’t find it; then again he thought Florida was an island.

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