The second wives club

The new Stepford Wives - Kidman, Midler, Close - aren't just meekly perfect; they're fierce rivals

It's easy to be cynical about the remake of The Stepford Wives. Hollywood, with its weakness for retreads that lapse into lazy pastiche, is more than usually busy these days mining tried and tested material from the past. (This summer, we also have the Coen brothers' reworking of The Ladykillers and Jonathan Demme's updated Manchurian Candidate.)

And The Stepford Wives is a film that seems unmovably rooted in its period. Both the 1975 movie and the 1972 Ira Levin novella spoke to the angst stirred up by first flowering of the feminist movement. The story's nightmare vision of robotically subservient suburban women, fashioned according to the repressive fantasies of their power-threatened menfolk, posed slyly subversive questions about the shifting gender balance. Were women crazy to try to overturn centuries of male oppression? Were men crazy to try to stop them?

These were real questions 30 years ago, which is why the story struck a chord and the term "Stepford wife" entered the lexicon. But to ask the same questions now seems silly. Nobody - certainly nobody in upper-class Connecticut, where the story is set - doubts women's ability to go head-to-head with men in the workplace, or anywhere. To question a woman's sanity because she has a mind of her own is to invite not admiration from male peers, but rather a sharp kick in the testicles.

Yet one can also argue that there is no better time for a smartly executed remake of The Stepford Wives. An unmistakable robotisation can again be seen in the country's exclusive residential neighbourhoods. The women no longer wear flower-print maxi-dresses (or hot pants, as Levin envisioned); they no longer slave over a hot stove. Rather, they can be seen in expensive sweatsuits and gold jewellery, flitting from yoga classes to manicures to consultations with their plastic surgeon. These women are cut, botoxed and dyed blonde to conform to an ideal of feminine perfection not that far from the Stepford standard.

Something strange has happened in the cycle from feminism to post-feminism and after. For a certain moneyed class of American woman, peer pressure no longer dictates that she maintain a career alongside her relationship with her husband and children. Rather, the pressure is to stay home - even though home-making and much of the drudgery of child-rearing have now been outsourced to Third World labour.

To fill the vacuum, this new breed of woman engages instead in competitive rivalry with her girlfriends, vying for the latest designer handbag or shiny new four-wheel-drive. Together, they talk about their obsessive micromanagement of their children's pre-school careers, swap beauty tips and discuss luxury resorts in Mexico. Intellectual pursuits, even reading books, are not generally encouraged.

Many of these women are trophy wives and know it; they used their physical wiles to ensnare men much older and richer than they, and now their job is to keep up the appearance that their perfect little lives are still blissful. They are not forced into submission by their husbands; they have wished the submission upon themselves.

Such women are in great abundance on the fringes of Hollywood, in the well-appointed westside communities of Los Angeles. One begins to see why some of the top actors in the business (many of them neighbours of these new plastic women) were queuing up to appear in The Stepford Wives. Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken - casts don't come much dreamier. One also sees the attraction of recasting the material as a comedy.

The finished film, just out in the US, certainly touches on some of the new themes, particularly the notion that the warped Stepford aesthetic might be appealing to some people. Unfortunately, the film is also a mess, expending its energies on sending up the original version as campy farce instead of offering any coherent social commentary.

It can't decide whether its Stepford denizens are modern women, or anachronisms from an earlier era. And it offers no plausible reasons why they have moved to the suburbs in the first place. Instead of casting them as trophy wives or career women sidelined by the pressures of child-rearing, it depicts them, ludicrously, as hard-charging corporate chief execs and high-court judges who one day just decide to pack it all in and bake cupcakes.

Quite how the project ended up this way is a matter of some speculation. By all accounts the director, Frank Oz, fought with several cast members, extended an already long three-month shoot into an excruciating eight months, tried out three endings and called actors back for reshoots. As the film reaches its absurd, "happy" ending, one senses that its makers are making it up as they go along.

And that's a pity, because the opportunity for something terrific was there. When it comes to gender politics, Hollywood is often its own worst enemy, however. In the 1975 original, Katharine Ross's character asks the chief villain why he turns the women into robots and he answers, chillingly: "Because we can." Were one to ask the executives at Paramount and Dreamworks why they made such a hash of the remake, they might well offer the very same excuse.

'The Stepford Wives' opens in the UK on 30 July