A remake without a cause

Nearly 20 years have passed since "The Stepford Wives," a movie about men who surreptitiously replace their uppity wives with robots who look identical to their spouses. Well, almost. The "new and improved" housewives supposedly conformed to the male ideal: an aproned June Cleaver with the body of a Playboy model.

Much has changed since then. Now, many women voluntarily undergo cosmetic upgrades, courtesy of plastic-surgery clinics across the country. Sometimes they even bare their nips and tucks on national television in shows such as Fox's "The Swan."

It seems an ideal moment to release Paramount's remake of the film, which stars Nicole Kidman, given the opportunity to provide a thought-provoking commentary on our extreme-makeover culture. But, from the way the actors tell it, the new version doesn't really have a message at all. It's meant to be taken as a light comedy and nothing more. In this "Stepford Wives," face value is really what counts.

"It's just meant to be funny," says star Bette Midler. "We're not into heavy social commentary here."

Top-billed star Kidman, who laughs as she concludes that the basic idea of women being remade to fit their men's ideals is "pretty awful," quickly returns to what seems to be a preprogrammed party line.

"[Producer] Scott Rudin told me, 'you need to have some fun,' " says Kidman. "So, I decided to do this part."

The actress plays a high-powered executive who relocates to the sleepy town of Stepford at the suggestion of her husband (Matthew Broderick). But she soon finds herself at odds with the subservient and dreamy Barbie-doll homemakers of this sinister Connecticut suburb.

"The first film was essentially a horror story," says Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., pointing to the theme of lab experimentation on humans. Not to mention the darkly satirical take on men's reaction to feminism. But she feels that today's Hollywood is far more timid about making controversial statements in mainstream movies.

Broderick is certainly reluctant to suggest the film has anything to say about relations between the sexes today. "There are some questions about whether men would create perfect wives for themselves if they had the choice, but this film is meant mostly as entertainment," he says.

Nancy Snow, communications professor at California State University at Fullerton takes exception to that idea. A movie about men remaking their women can't help making a statement about gender, she says, adding that the new film may inadvertently reflect how modern society views feminism. "These days, the emphasis is all on looking good. 'Lighten up; don't get too heavy,' " she says. "You don't ever want to talk about gender issues because it might unnerve the men."

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