At the chilling climax of Bryan Forbes's 1975 film The Stepford Wives, Katharine Ross comes face to face with her "perfect" self: a plasticised nightmare dreamt up by chauvinist men hell-bent on replacing their spouses with servile robots. Having watched her few remaining friends turn from independent spirits to simpering hausfraus interested only in baking cakes and satisfying their husbands' sexual desires, Ross's spunky Joanna Eberhart finally finds out what her own husband really wants from a wife. It's a genuinely creepy sequence, not simply because of the empty eye sockets that gaze hollowly back at our horrified heroine, but also because the doppelganger's body seems sinisterly pulchritudinous. You can al-most hear Joanna's lousy husband telling his male co-conspirators to "suck out her soul; destroy her intelligence; crush her independence . . . Oh, and while you're at it, could you give her bigger boobs as well?"
The mix of humour and horror that characterised Forbes's film perfectly complemented Ira Levin's source novel, which posited a poisonous chocolate- box town where increasingly impotent husbands surreptitiously swap their successful spouses for walking, talking, living dolls. As with so many Levin thrillers, such as The Boys From Brazil or Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives was a sardonic allegory that examined a recognisable contemporary anxiety (in this case, the male backlash against feminism) by extrapolating it almost to the point of ridicule. Yet while Levin, Forbes and the original Stepford Wives screenwriter, William Goldman, instinctively understood that such satirical shocks should be delivered with a straight face, the former Muppeteer Frank Oz approaches his unnecessary 21st-century remake with the smirking demeanour of a man absolutely dying for a laugh. The result is an alleged "comedy" that is less satirical than farcical, utterly lacking in wit, insight or entertainment, and which woefully fails to fulfil the scriptwriter Paul Rudnick's promise to "give the story a contemporary spin" - unless one imagines that the word "contemporary" is somehow synonymous with intellectual bankruptcy, political expediency and rank artistic vulgarity.
Not appreciating the black humour of the original, Oz and Rudnick turn the screen pink with their desperate "high-camp" update, a meld of crass pastiche and shrieking overstatement that rattles the ear, dazzles the eye and dulls the brain. Thus, while Katharine Ross's heroine was a believably independent spirit, Nicole Kidman's Joanna is a caricatured careerist dragon, forced to move to Stepford after being fired from a TV station when her muckraking reality shows prompt assassination attempts. Newly cosseted in a world of cake-baking and afternoon delight, Joanna takes refuge in the friendship of brassy New Yorker Bobbie (Bette Midler) and mincing male Roger (Roger Bart), who appears to have been inserted solely to prove the film's "contemporary" sensibility. That Bart is easily the most amusing thing on screen speaks volumes about the failure of The Stepford Wives 2004, which reduces a fable about the mistreatment of modern women to a stream of screaming-queen gags about stereotypical gay men. Worse still, the update inserts a couple of new "twists" that somehow manage to exonerate Matthew Broderick's slimy husband of plotting to obliterate his wife, and even wind up blaming a woman for orchestrating the entire misogynist plot. That's post-feminism for you.
Elsewhere, Christopher Walken sleepwalks through another perfunctory "weirdly evil" turn (for which one hopes that he was handsomely rewarded), while Glenn Close is reduced to essaying a variation on her cartoonish Cruella de Vil persona. Despite the vigour with which Close chews up the script, all big hair, scary smiles and lip-curling vowels, the mania in her eyes merely reflects the general air of desperation that reeks through every frame of the film. "Show-stopping" set pieces such as the scene in which a Stepford wife functions as a cash machine, spewing crisp dollar bills through her pouting lips, make no sense whatsoever, particularly because the film can't decide whether its victims are robots after all.
It is hard not to conclude that disastrous test screenings and panicked reshoots were prob-ably responsible for at least some of the headache-inducing incoherence. Surely, no one could have set out to make a movie this chaotic on purpose? By the time the sappy happy ending rolls around, the audience is left feeling like the wives of Levin's original story, their brains reduced to mush, their will to live gradually seeping away. The finished product not only makes disposable TV spin-offs such as Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Stepford Children seem like Citizen Kane by comparison; it also shapes up as a strong contender for very worst movie of the year - dumb, dull and (in its vile, wishy-washy political revisionism) ever so slightly evil.