'Wives' is all women's glib

New version of 'The Stepford Wives' flunks feminism 101

To ready myself for the remake of "The Stepford Wives," I looked back at how I reviewed the original movie version of Ira Levin's novel.

Here's the nub of what I wrote in 1975, starting with a reference to the movie's promotional tag: "Something strange is going on in the town of Stepford. Yep. And something strange is going on in the movie business, too, when a second-class thriller like [this] can parade itself as the natural successor to 'Rosemary's Baby.' "

It turns out Mr. Levin was also displeased by the 1975 film of his science-fiction fable, and in a recent article he nailed one of the movie's basic problems - its clothes. "Those long dresses ... drove me crazy," he wrote, noting that men macho enough to turn their spouses into robotic stereotypes of picture-perfect wives probably wouldn't want them dressed in flouncy gowns. Form- fitting dresses and tank-tops are more like it.

I hoped the makers of the 2004 version would avoid that mistake. Alas, they've compounded it - and added glaring new mistakes.

The basic story is still the same, grounded in the fears stirred up in males when "women's lib" gives their female counterparts new hopes and goals. The menfolk of a Connecticut town decide to squelch this with a mysterious procedure that gives their wives the most extreme makeover of all, rendering them gorgeous and domestic but stealing their humanity in the process.

The remake transforms Levin's cautionary tale into a confused confection that's too busy snickering over suburban foibles to provoke any thoughts about gender politics, or even about entertaining skirmishes between the sexes. Bringing in a heavy-handed gay subplot - and, yes, sticking with costumes that make Barbie dolls look prim - the filmmakers go for laughs instead.

The only message that struggles through is that Hollywood considers feminism more threatening than ever. The film contains so many endings that it's hard to tell what impressions the filmmakers want us to leave the theater with.

Buy a copy of the book instead. It remains an excellent read.

Rated PG-13; contains sexuality.

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