Frank Oz is responsible for some of the most heartwarming and fascinating pop culture of the 20th Century. Starting at Jim Henson Productions at only 19 years old, he performed as Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle, and Fozzie Bear. He had a rare chemistry with Jim Henson, who voiced the Swedish Chef while Oz worked the hands. He also helped create one of the most iconic puppets of all time: Yoda.
The success of the Muppets and Star Wars made Oz a hot property in Hollywood, allowing him to carve out a niche for movies with dark, biting, and witty senses of humor, like Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Bowfinger. His films pointed a direct lens at class (Scoundrels), Hollywood (Bowfinger), and being outed as gay (In & Out).
So it made sense in 2004 for Oz to take on feminism and liberalism in an adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1972 book The Stepford Wives. The book, which had given the imaginary town of Stepford, Connecticut an association with forced perfection of gender roles, seemed like a perfect fit for Oz. Throw in Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, and Christopher Walken, and the movie seemed like a sure thing.
And yet, in a 2007 interview looking back on the experience of making the movie, which was a financial flop and brutalized by critics, Oz simply said, “I fucked up.”
Oz expanded by saying that for the first time in his career, “I didn't follow my instincts. And what happened was, I had too much money, and I was too responsible and concerned for Paramount. I was too concerned for the producers.”
While Oz is right that Stepford Wives is not a good movie, it is a fascinating one with some genuinely clever moments. When TV executive Joanna Eberhart (Kidman) introduces her channel’s new Fall lineup, it’s filled with reality TV shows that feature emasculated men failing to impress their ultra-impressive wives, who then sleep with beefy male escorts.
When one cucked husband (Mike White, more recently of White Lotus) shows up at her conference and tries to murder her after shooting his now ex-wife and her lovers, the station drops Joanna. She has a nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy.
Early on, Oz walks his line of dark humor well. When her husband and underling Walter (Broderick) shows up with a get-well card from their son, it shows a crude drawing of a shooter attacking a sad-looking stick figure labeled “Mommy.” After quitting in solidarity, Walter is determined to give their family a fresh start outside of New York in Stepford, Connecticut.
Once there, the family is met with the extremely friendly Claire Wellington (Close) who introduces them to their new smart house, complete with robot dog (in another funny gag, the dog rolls down the stairs like a busted slinky). She introduces Joanna to the odd women of Stepford, who only wear 1950’s dresses and high heels, even when exercising in “Clairerobics,” a chore-based workout program designed by Claire which involves acting like a washing machine.
At a 4th of July party, Claire meets the town’s lone Jewish couple, Bobbie Markowitz (Midler) and Dave (Jon Lovitz). Bobbie is an accomplished writer and outspoken feminist, although Dave seems like an oaf. She also meets Roger (Roger Bart), who has moved to Stepford with his partner Jerry.
The trio hit it off by acknowledging how tacky and weird everything is here. Then, one of the wives Sarah (Faith Hill) seems to take square dancing too far, unable to stop twirling until she collapses. Joanna swears she sees sparks flying for Sarah’s ears, although the community’s leader, Mike (Walken) promises that it’s just dehydration.
Stepford gets several small things right, like how the secretive Men’s Association just spends all day playing BattleBots, or how Bobbie’s Judaism marks her as an outsider in a suburban America obsessed with Christmas. But beyond some well-done goofs, it never actually becomes a dark comedy. It mostly plays as lighthearted, which becomes increasingly tone-deaf as it's clear that the wives have been forcibly transformed into their current states.
What happens to the women who come to Stepford is very convoluted, but it’s some mix of microchips being implanted in their brains and their becoming robots. When Roger accidentally increases a woman’s breast size with a remote control, it’s not clear exactly what’s happening, nor is it ever resolved.
“When you sense that there's no governing thought, or that the governing thought is kind of ‘Gee, I'm not sure where to go,’ you can sense it,” Oz said in his interview. Stepford is a confused movie, but its confusion marks a very odd moment in an accomplished career.
The Stepford Wives is streaming now on HBO Max.