The Day After Tomorrow
Director: Roland Emmerich. Cast: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Arjay Smith, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok, Jay O. Sanders, Ian Holm, Adrian Lester, Richard McMillan, Tamlyn Tomita, Austin Nichols, Kenneth Welsh, Perry King, Mimi Kuzyk, Vitali Makarov, Russell Yuen. Screenplay: Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff.

The Stepford Wives
Director: Frank Oz. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, Faith Hill, Jon Lovitz, David Marshall Grant, Matt Malloy, Mike White, Larry King, Meredith Vieira. Screenplay: Paul Rudnick (based on the novel by Ira Levin).

Popular movies are a little bit slutty, and this is something we perennially love about them, or love to hate about them, or maybe hate to love about them. (Some people just hate popular movies, but they're probably not reading this site.) Even among such eager-to-please company, though, big-studio summer releases offer the frankest, coarsest attempts at seduction. One can imagine what kind of personals ad a blockbuster movie might write on its own behalf:

Wanted: Huge, shiny, top-dollar toy seeks SWM, or SBM, or DB/H/A/WF, or adventure-seeking couple, or whatever, preferably 18-35yo, for a real good time! Don't worry, I hate walks on the beach and Schübert by candlelight. Instead, for $10, I will glitter and shimmer and whir and purr and laff and erupt and explode all over your face. Will try to last 2hr.! No strings attached, but repeat visits encouraged. Call me at 333-FILM.

When we're feeling generous, and we don't assume that Hollywood is full of bottom-line zombies with little to no personal investment in the aesthetic credibility and survival of their medium, we might even imagine that actors and filmmakers are as embarrassed (maybe more?) to sign on for the crappier summer movies as we are to attend them. Of course, not all summer releases are crappy, as Shrek 2 is gorgeously reminding us, even as it makes enough money to found its own studio. Then there's another class of movies, crappy to semi-crappy blockbusters that were not inevitably crappy, that gleam with some vague radiance of earnest intentions, the desire to be something or say something.

I imagine the on-set atmosphere of movies like Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow and Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives, at least initially, as competing zones of abashedness and self-congratulation, shame and hope. Do actors like Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, and Ian Holm sit around in the morning, having little Starbucks coffee-klatsches in their morning robes or makeup-trailer casuals, assuring each other that The Day After Tomorrow has a high cheeseball factor, but hey, don't we need the money if we ever want a share of prestige-for-peanuts pictures like Far from Heaven or The Sweet Hereafter? Surely the ends justify the means? And besides, maybe this particular summer bon-bon will get some people thinking, prompt them into some sort of action. As Glenn Close recently said in a 60 Minutes interview about the Stepford remake, "It would be nice if, after our movie, someone could turn to the person they came with and say, 'I'm glad you're not a robot. I'm glad we're both human, even though we're flawed'" Or, as she might just as easily or honestly have said, "Look, this could really be worse, this could be The Chronicles of Riddick!"

It is lovely when any movie, especially a summertime movie, has an actual idea, and yet we might ask, if an idea squats in the middle of a movie, and no one in the movie seems to hear or develop it, is the idea really there? Is one idea enough, or can it prove more trouble than it's worth? The Day After Tomorrow and The Stepford Wives are interesting though inconclusive test-cases for these questions. A little dishearteningly, the movie that stops trying halfway through comes off much better than the one that goes for broke from start to finish, mostly because the second film has no idea what goal it's even chasing.

The Day After Tomorrow is a one-sentence premise stretched out to 124 minutes. This is not a new thing for director Emmerich, who has founded past blockbusters and would-be blockbusters on the simple declaratives, "Godzilla is back again" (Godzilla), "Mel Gibson is pissed again" (The Patriot), and most munificently, "Aliens are blowing up the world again" (Independence Day). Seemingly reared to adulthood on an exclusive diet of low-budget sci-fi and pure oxygen, Emmerich arrives into his own movies already out of breath, giddy from a disaster that hasn't even happened yet and impatient to let the pulverizations begin. He's not much into standard exposition, which is kind of odd, because he winds up trying to scare us with the violent dissolution of a world we never actually experience in its calm state. In The Day After Tomorrow, i.e., "The world is freezing over again," barely minutes have elapsed before Antarctica is literally cracking in half, right underneath Quaid's tiny trio of paleoclimatologists. That's one continent down, six to go, and we've still got two hours to kill!

About 45 minutes into the movie, Emmerich has already careened us through all the sordid apocalyptic spectacle he has up his sleeve. Much of this is genuinely disquieting, like the images of multiple tornadoes spidering across Los Angeles or of cinderblock-sized hailstones crushing Japanese people in the streets. (For some reason, auteurs of the world-destruction genre never tire of vaporizing poor Japan.) A few images are unintentionally hilarious. I never cease to be amazed at how the desecration of the Hollywood sign is presented time and time again as an emblem of tragedy; that the film implicitly parallels this occurrence with the submersion of New York City says everything you could ever want to know about movie-industry narcissism. (Imagine a doomsday novel where a grave, solemn omen is the razing of the HarperCollins printing press!) Even when the film is a little klutzy in choreographing all this chaos—this is the kind of movie, after all, where high-school students outrun tidal waves, and America alone quickly comes to stand in for the entire world's climatic devastation—the sum force of the imagery outweighs the local gaffes and absurdities. The film taps into a huge reserve of repressed and/or denied terror that we really are killing our planet, which will certainly return the favor somewhere along the line. (For what it's worth, the basic skeleton of The Day After Tomorrow's events matches the forecast of ecosystem-breakdown and rapid warming-into-freezing described to me in a college course in the Fall of 1995.) And while much of the audience with whom I saw The Day After Tomorrow whooped and laughed at the film's undisguised scapegoating of Bush and Cheney stand-ins, it's invigorating to see a Hollywood action movie use real-world dilemmas to propel the story and name real-world reactionaries as the fuel behind the villainy. Talk about alternate energy sources.

What this means is that The Day After Tomorrow does rattle us, possibly mobilizes us, and almost certainly broadens and popularizes a discussion of how drastic and rapid climate change could in fact be. At least, that's the hope, after we scrape away all the banality, for in the second hour, the movie enters its own climate change, revealing itself as a more-than-usually hackneyed and ill-constructed ride to the inevitable finish. Even with a crisis of massive visual scale and universal scope at its center, the movie comes more and more to rely on lame plot devices (infected cuts? killer timberwolves???) and squishy homilies about family and togetherness. Dennis Quaid gets to make his trademark journey from Expression #1, where his eyebrows form an angry triangle and his mouth scowls straight across, to Expression #2, where his eyebrows form a straight line and his mouth smiles a happy triangle: his face really is some kind of geometric conservation principle. Sela Ward beams at him proudly for walking from DC to NYC to see their son, while she bides her time with a parentless leukemia patient. Emmy Rossum, saucer-eyed ingenue of Songcatcher and Mystic River, beams proudly at Jake Gyllenhaal for knowing how to keep a fire going, and for playing Titanic with her when the lower floors of the New York Public Library start to flood. The president, demoted from the august heroism of Independence Day (he fishes while the oceans rise), is killed off-screen, and the once-Cheneyish Veep who rises in his stead actually finds a heart that not only experiences genuine remorse and emotional sensation, it also pumps blood at reliable human intervals. Let no wish go unfulfilled!

Most of this is silly to the point of distraction, except that it precisely doesn't distract: it's all so cardboard and borderline incompetent that it fades from memory even as it transpires, allowing the earlier, grounding visions of U.S. diplomatic hubris and of the Northern Hemisphere encased by a massive ice-cap to maintain their hold on the viewer's imagination. In the manner of 1950s titles like The War of the Worlds, it is almost to The Day After Tomorrow's advantage to flatten and efface every detail and texture in its second half so that its real raisons d'être—a plausible vision of a ruined world and an indictment of explicitly American arrogance for fostering humanity's self-destruction—can survive in the memory. The Day After Tomorrow is on several levels poorly made and dramatically juvenile, but the whole movie wisely showcases the strong, sober intuitions at its core: it's like Deep Impact as made by Michael Moore, and that's a good thing, or a good enough thing.

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If The Day After Tomorrow offers a cautious lesson that you can basically blow off the last hour and still wind up with a decent movie, The Stepford Wives remake suggests that you can drag a high-concept to water 1,000 different ways but you still can't make it think. Split between two studios (Paramount and DreamWorks), split between two impulses (to represent the original material or to mock it), split between social allegiances (a critique of capitalist largesse and a delirious celebration of same), The Stepford Wives had some early decisions to make that clearly got pushed around the table and, eventually, under the carpet. The scenes, ideas, and performances are so at war with themselves, not to mention with each other, that The Stepford Wives is almost as chaotic as the action of The Day After Tomorrow. It's not that it's an undernourished or scrawled-off movie—where so many American films skimp on locations, design, and assembled talent, The Stepford Wives practically gorges itself on all three. But this is pop-cinema as gluttony, a film that overeats without remembering what it ordered.

This outcome is especially shameful, because Ira Levin's novel provides such a distilled, transposable scenario: as everyone already knows (the concept of "spoilers" does not apply), the men of Stepford, Connecticut, are colluding in an enterprise to bio-engineer new versions of their wives, which at some point in the process involves killing the real dames. I haven't read the novel, but I'm a big fan of the 1975 film starring Katharine Ross, which utterly doesn't deserve its derisive reputation as bad camp. Sure, some of it looks dated, and the music score sounds like it was composed by Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but even that eventually works in the movie's favor: the same anodyne flute and guitar melodies that play over the anodyne, utopian beginning of the picture re-play, unchanged, over the anodyne, sinister conclusion, suggesting a cruel continuity between the "real world" of the early scenes and the more obviously jerry-rigged universe of the end. Stretching between those bookends is a gutsy, well-played, and ineffable movie, its tone and structure so strange as to be surreal, only succumbing to dark-and-stormy-night templates in the final scenes.

One of the false homilies that keeps surfacing in reviews of the new movie is that Stepford Wives '04 has a tougher task, because these days its whole audience already knows the secret. This is hogwash, not only because the conceit of the bestselling novel was already ubiquitously known to 1975 audiences (the "secret" is the virtual selling-point of the original film's poster-art and ad campaign), but because the precise details of the women's transformation is never the central issue anyway; even in its final scenes, the original Stepford Wives barely elucidates the particulars of process or motive. Yes, the movie is structured as a thriller, but in a highly idiosyncratic way: it lures the audience into an early sense of superiority (since we assume we've guessed what Katharine Ross hasn't), then confuses us with dissonant sequences, expressionist shots, and so many cipherish interactions that we actually leave the movie more bewildered than we started. One of the real and unexplained mysteries is how early Joanna Eberhart, the Ross character, actually grasps what is happening, and why she doesn't see it or admit it sooner—indeed, why she virtually succumbs at the very moment her knowledge might save her. She also emerges, through William Goldman's sidewinding script and Ross' adept portrayal, as a genuinely interesting character, ornery and unsatisfied and misunderstood even to herself. The original Stepford Wives, delicious and surprising though it is in unraveling the main plot, defies all expectations to emerge as a credible character study, no less than Levin's parallel fable, Rosemary's Baby.

So the "problem" of the audience's knowledge has always existed for the Stepford films, and it's only a "problem" if you decide this material isn't about anything except spark-plugs and secret societies. The new Stepford Wives has no idea what it's about, but the decision to make it a comedy, much less one that aspires to satire, is an early sign of trouble. Nicole Kidman's Joanna Eberhart, no longer an unhappy woman with inchoate desires, is now a well-known television mastermind behind the newest highs/lows in reality TV. She is a parodically slick and hyper-confident public speaker, and on first pass, as Joanna rabble-rouses a stadium-sized audience with ludicrous clips from her new shows, Kidman seems to be duplicating her ex-hubby's peformance from Magnolia, with a few more winks thrown in.

Kidman has been a riotously uneven actress of late, and Joanna Eberhart is not a performance she'll much want to remember. Adopting a saucy, hip-swaying walk totally out of synch with her Connie-Nielsen-in-Demonlover wardrobe, swinging between moments played for bizarre sincerity (like when she gets fired from her job, in closeup) followed by moments of overt cartooning (as when she subsequently screams out her despair), Kidman isn't making any sense. To be fair, she's chasing the tail of a schizophrenic script and an incongruous, purely-business casting choice. She shouldn't even be here, and nor should the writer, Paul Rudnick, whose dizzy form of one-liner humor is perfectly suited to his two-page Libby Gelman-Waxner column in Premiere but rarely to anything longer. It would be one thing if the movie were interested in Joanna as a walking contradiction, if it seemed to know that the woman wearing those clothes and that haircut is not the woman who just gave that convention speech, neither of whom are the woman who would actually devise these (incoherent) shows, nor the other woman who would agree to move to Stepford, CT, to save her marriage with a cold-turkey dose of gated-community idyllism. And none of these women would ever have married Matthew Broderick's pulpy, boring Walter Kresby to begin with, so he's a wash and an annoyance from the moment he steps onscreen.

Rudnick does land a few quippy jokes throughout, but his ratio is so hit-and-miss that you don't get a sense of which kind of movie, with what kind of bent or message, he was actually trying to create. Frank Oz seems even more helpless, and he seems to have ceded his director's chair entirely to production designer Jackson De Govia, who exploded the movie's budget with ghoulishly commodified interiors that are so overdone they're beyond funny; they're the scariest thing in the film. The one thing Rudnick and De Govia seem to agree on is that, circa 2004, especially in upper-class white Connecticut, everyone is mostly a joke, and everyone mostly hates each other, though they express this in witty repartee. The blonde bimbos hanging on the arm of every Stepford man are actually cut from the same one-dimensional cloth as Kidman's neglectful careerist, Bette Midler's brassy Jewish writer, Glenn Close's deranged Martha Stewart, Roger Bart's flaming gay queen, David Marshall Grant's embarrassed gay republican...

The idea of turning women (and men) into types loses all of its charge once the movie is already full of types, on every side. In this Stepford, it's just a question of turning one kind of type into another, and we come to discover that all of the Stepford wives were originally judges, CEOs, finance wizards, etc. We hear the movie saying that men are terrified of successful women and wish they could transform them into sex kittens that spew dollar bills from their mouths. Yet Rudnick is oddly and ominously reluctant to voice this whole thought at the same time, or in the same tone. Yes, when Oz takes us inside the secret Men's Association, we discover that the men are buffoons, smashing remote-control cars into each other and fetishistically twiddling pink bras around their fingers. Yet by contrast, the scenes where Walter impugns Joanna for forsaking their marriage and privileging her career are given a gross but obviously-intended credence by the grotesque prologue in TV-land. These scenes play just like every Hollywood movie where some greedy man or woman is excoriated for their diseased values, often mere moments before magical amnesia makes him into a family man or, in distaff cases, Robert Redford soothes her ambitions with his buttery horse-whispers. Palpably, this Stepford Wives sympathizes with Walter's dissatisfaction even as it lampoons him for the solution; it hardly dawns on the movie that the two are inextricably related. Heck, even Joanna herself sympathizes, which is why she tries to turn herself into an aproned, cupcake-baking domestic goddess before Stepford science even has a chance to intervene. De Govia at that moment surrounds her with approximately 2,000 cupcakes, apparently baked in a single morning. But she gets interrupted when the loud Jew and the swishy fairy come over and take her to a house where they find a golden bone, which is actually a device that makes a woman's breasts inflate until she falls over. Hey, what's the plot of this movie again?

Like Rudnick's comparably befuddled script for In & Out, The Stepford Wives takes a complicated issue, wonders how it would play as a gag, and then strays so far from the basic terms of the gag that we in the audience hardly know where we are. It's a free-for-all of stereotypes, empowerment messages, Loreena Bobbitt jokes, misogyny, man-bashing, gay humor, gay minstrelsy, sharp pokes at technology followed by expensive special effects and outrageously bald-faced product placements. The basic story, much less the animating idea, get so lost in all this that the movie can't even agree with itself whether the Wives® are synthetic robots or merely the same women with microchips in their brains. The germane issue of men eliminating and replacing their wives' minds is hopelessly entangled with the issue of pneumatizing their bodies, as though the film isn't sure where identity truly resides. The original movie was infinitely sharper about this, casually suggesting that what men really want to do is remake women in the docile, desexed, soothing images of their mothers, even though they still want to have sex with them—yikes! All of that reading between the lines of male erotomania is gone in the new project, whose pitiful mascot is Faith Hill, constantly looking terrified and uninstructed in hidden corners of her shots, recruited again and again for inglorious pratfalls and other scenes that cruelly riff on her own vacuous image—since a Stepfordized Faith Hill turns out to look like, well, Faith Hill. This movie is so mean and cynical beneath its light surface that it will skewer its own participants in search of the elusive laugh.

Where The Day After Tomorrow survives and half-dignifies its more ridiculous passages with a strong central conceit, The Stepford Wives willingly dispenses with a strong conceit in its unbridled urge to be ridiculous, taken here as a synonym of "entertaining," "satiric," what have you. All sorts of abrupt cuts and dangling characters (whatever happened to Joanna's children), not to mention the voluminous press coverage of the movie's troubled shoot, suggest that this Stepford isn't the picture its studio intended to make. Then again, you can search the film high and low for any clear sign of what movie they were trying to make. The obvious answer is that The Stepford Wives team were willing to make anything in order to make money. Or, in the parlance of the original Stepford Wives, why would two studios toss out a perfectly good story and a wonderful prior film and replace it with a robotized gadget with no soul? Because they can. Grades: The Day After Tomorrow: B–; The Stepford Wives: D+

Awards for The Day After Tomorrow:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Visual Effects

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