John Clark (Richard Gere) has a pretty good life--a successful career; an adoring wife and two wonderful kids. Yet something isn't quite right. He and his wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon) have a strong and loving marriage but John feels restless and unfulfilled as he wades through his mind-numbing daily routine. Then one day while on the train home he happens to spy a beautiful dance instructor Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring forlornly through the window of Miss Mitzi's dance studio. Haunted by her gaze John impulsively jumps off the train and signs up for ballroom dance lessons unbeknownst to his wife. Suddenly John is exposed to a world he never imagined--a place filled with grand passions bitter rivalries and exhilarating dance relishing the moments he spends waltzing rumbaing and tangoing with his newfound friends (don't we all). But John soon discovers that it isn't enough to have a secret passion--the best part is sharing it with the ones he loves. Pour chocolate syrup over this one and call it done!
Gere's sure got happy feet these days. First the guy dropped jaws when he actually tap danced his way through the Oscar-winning Chicago. Now there's Shall We Dance?. What's next? Gene Kelly's part in Singin' in the Rain? In all fairness Gere plays John as an ordinary but charming middle-aged man who also just happens to have an affinity for ballroom dancing. It isn't in any way a stretch for the charismatic actor but he does have an uncanny ability to draw you in once he glides across the floor and flashes that sexy smile. As John's patient wife Sarandon doesn't go out on a limb either exuding her usual warm intelligence. As a married couple Gere and Sarandon do an excellent job keeping things refreshingly grounded. It's a marriage you immediately recognize--they've been together for so many years they've developed a loving familiarity but are trying to find ways keep it exciting. The supporting cast also do a great job livening up the proceedings including Lisa Ann Walter (Bruce Almighty) as the been-around-the-block ballroom dancer Bobbie and Stanley Tucci whose turn as Link a lawyer by day/salsa dancer by night is hilarious. Of course the one you really want to watch dance is Jennifer Lopez who sure does know how to sashay her way around her partners. Unfortunately when not dancing the rest of Lopez's performance is fairly stiff. Her sad sack story about some tragic past and losing her desire to dance competitively is just plain dull.
Once again Hollywood has no time to think of anything original simply remaking other classics--in this case the smash Japanese hit Shall We Dance? (Dansu Wo Shimasho Ka) written and directed by Masayuki Suo. Instead of concentrating on the Japanese culture and their taboos against the public intimacy of dance writer Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun) and director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) find a way to give the story a good all-American spin concentrating on marital malaise and finding a way out of a personal abyss. That's all fine and dandy and gives the film a unique perspective; the problem is the subject matter: ballroom dancing. There have only been a handful of movies about that art form that have worked--the Japanese original just mentioned and Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom are two good examples. Maybe it's nice to go back to that old-fashioned age when Lawrence Welk's orchestra and dance partners brought the family together. But in this electrifying hip-hop age of MTV--with the writhing and the shimmying of nearly naked bodies on the primetime small screen--ballroom dancing seems a little er outdated.
The tagline reads "The wives of Stepford have a secret " and boy do they ever. Of course Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) a former tough-as-nails television network president doesn't know the secret. Not yet anyway. She just thinks she's moving to the peaceful upper-class suburbs of Stepford Connecticut with her attentive husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two adorable children--to try to recover from a nervous breakdown after being summarily dismissed from her high-powered job. What Joanna finds instead is a group of eerie '50s-type perfect housewives lead by the ultra-coiffed Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) who tend to their beautiful spacious homes excel at crafts and cater to their geeky husbands' every whim. The women's behavior is more than a little odd to Joanna even if Walter thinks it's all very quaint as he rushes off to join the other men folk at the Stepford Men's Association lead by Claire's manly husband Mike (Christopher Walken). Luckily Joanne isn't entirely alone in her suspicions discovering allies in recent transplants Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) a frumpy best-selling author and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) a gay-and-proud-of-it architect. Together they try to unravel the mysterious of Stepford while also managing to learn how to make the perfect Christmas ornament from a pine cone.
Stepford Wives employs a stellar cast. The over-exposed Kidman finally gets to loosen up a bit after such downers as The Hours Cold Mountain and Dogville and has fun with Joanna. Her bitchy TV executive is particularly comical as it is realistic especially when she's spouting off ideas on how to turn a tragedy into "real" television. Honestly the Oscar-winning actress can do just about anything--but it may be time for her to take a vacation. As Joanna's husband Broderick is spot-on as the mousy Walter who eventually shows some backbone (of course he does). Close and Walken also have their roles down er perfectly as the masterminds of their own little version of heaven. But the real standouts are Midler as the caustic Bobbie and Broadway actor Bart as Roger who provokes the biggest laughs from the audience with his flare for the flamboyant. Yes it may be a tad stereotypical but he sells it girlfriend. Even country singer Faith Hill tries her hand at the whole acting thing making an appearance as one of the Stepford wives--come on she certainly looks the part doesn't she?
Trouble brewed on The Stepford Wives set. Director Frank Oz (In & Out) apparently had difficulties with producers over the direction of the film (which veers completely away from the suspenseful original) as well as run-ins with co-stars Midler and Walken--and the end product reflects it. Stepford is muddled and savvy moviegoers will no doubt scrutinize the film's glaring flaws especially the whole "robot" component (are they actual robots or what?) and the over-the-top maybe-you'll-guess-it twist at the end. But Stepford's intentional ribbing of social mores and quest for perfection comes shining through thanks to Paul Rudnick's campy script. There are more than a few hysterical scenes including one where Joanna Bobbie and Roger sneak into one of the Stepford houses and after hearing a particularly vigorous lovemaking session between perfect wife #34 and her husband Roger runs up the stairs because he's "got to get some of that" or the scene where Claire talks about the great things to make at Christmas while Bobbie throws out her own clever ideas on what to do with pine cones. The important thing is Stepford Wives doesn't take itself seriously--well not really--and neither should anyone else.