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Making Mrs. Right

The robo-babes are back in town with hilarious retooling of 'Stepford'

Judging from the frantic worry surrounding Paramount's "Stepford Wives" remake, you'd think the movie was a Democrat running for president. But watching this satire, you realize that the folks who've made it aren't inept; the people marketing it are. Instead of hogging billboards and littering magazines with posters of a Barbied-up Nicole Kidman holding a finger to her mouth, perfuming away the presumed stink, somebody should be out selling screenwriter Paul Rudnick's withering jokes and the cast's killer performances.

Apparently, "The Stepford Wives" has been tested more than a sprinter headed to the Olympics, and parts have been reshot, dumped, and injected with Botox. So the finished product has a cobbled-together structure and mismatched,

mood-swinging energy, and the narrative is usually nonsense. (The movie's only decently put-together sequence is a gorgeous and eerily balletic montage of women horny over their appliances in the opening credits.) Still, "The Stepford Wives" is nothing to be ashamed of. Has anyone at Paramount actually seen this movie? It's hilarious -- and on purpose, too. This is the first satisfying adult summer comedy set in New England to come out of Hollywood since "The Witches of Eastwick" in 1987.

Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, who leaves Manhattan after she's fired from her mega-powerful television executive job. The network wants nothing to do with her once a contestant (Mike White) on one of her upcoming matrimonial reality series ("I Can Do Better!") jealously kills his wife and her new lovers. Jobless and therefore useless, Joanna has a total "nervous collapse" and heads with her husband (Matthew Broderick) and two kids to the Connecticut town of Stepford, a vast, perfection-drenched gated community. There, the plan is for her to stop loving her career at the expense of her family and get her priorities straight. Naturally, the cheer and brightness conspire to drive her nuts all over again.

There's a line that splits Stepford in half. The schlumpy, nerdy men golf and wear khakis. The women all look like Jessica Simpson (tan, pointy, and blond) and do things like caddy in heels and offer effusively bland compliments. Joanna, who's pale, has an ugly brown bob, and seems 9 feet tall, is like an alien. She makes fast friends with best-selling writer and town Jew Bobbie Markowitz, whom Bette Midler plays with an acid snarl.

Soon, the two of them start running around town trying to find out what goes on at Stepford's men's club, which is run by the typically insinuating Christopher Walken and is where all the hubbies gather to smoke cigars and play BattleBots. They're also retooling their wives into busty mannequins they can operate with remote controls.

Rudnick, a seasoned wit and the author of the Kevin Kline coming-out farce "In & Out," turns a reupholstering queer eye on Bryan Forbes's 1975 movie, which tried to wring horror from Katharine Ross's straight face. The original's mystery was what the men were up to. This new version takes that for granted and explains why. It also uses the movie to send up the preposterousness of everything from white, middle-class privilege and urbanites' cripplingly uncool move outbound to the suburbs to wholesale misogyny: A husband inserts an ATM card into the mouth of his femme-bot wife and out spits cash -- ones, too!

Rudnick specializes in hurling poison darts. Here he throws armloads of them, and a surprising number hit the board. His Stepford is a sunny real-world fantasy where powerful, white-collar mommies go to die in a comic nightmare of housework, baking, and flattery. They're essentially deprogrammed of their ambition and softened from corporate mean girls into conciliatory homemakers who love grocery shopping, Christmas decorations, and floral prints.

Directed by Frank Oz with a mix of flatness and flair, the remake is still stuck with the original movie's impatient plotting. Bobbie (played by Paula Prentiss the first time around) is Stepfordized far too soon. But in a brilliant move, Rudnick throws in a gay couple, the irreverent half of which is played by the stage actor Roger Bart. He winds up snooping around with Kidman and Midler. Initially, pairing him and Midler seems redundant, but Midler plays happy and dumpy, leaving the brassiness to Bart.

The pair seem comfortable co-stealing scenes from their lanky costar. Kidman, though, is a trouper. In the early New York scenes, her performance works as a mockery of Faye Dunaway's heartlessness in "Network" and a sporty remix of Kidman's own work in "To Die For." Later, she's like a 1960-something Mia Farrow on growth hormones. Right now, Kidman is having a self-punishing moment in which she's seen doing a lot of manual labor. She farmed in "Cold Mountain" and slaved in "Dogville." Here, she polishes brass and churns out cupcakes. But she at least seems to enjoy getting icing on her hands.

Speaking of icing, the best thing in the movie is Glenn Close, who arrives as Walken's wife, Claire, a one-woman welcome wagon of clenched teeth, tight skin, and WASPy, country-club derangement. This is Close's battiest part since she played Sunny Von Bulow and Hamlet's mother Gertrude in the same year, and in the last reel of this picture, she only gets better.

The movies need her -- and Midler, for that matter -- but often don't know what to do with either of them, or with most grown-ups for that matter. If a studio can't figure out how to sell light, caustic entertainment about adults to adults, then maybe turning our loves into soulless robo-spouses is the least of our worries.

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