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Frank, my dear, I just don’t give a damn

The Stepford WivesParamount PicturesDirected by Frank OzStarring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette MidlerRated PG-132 out of 5 stars

In Frank Oz’s remake of the 1970s Katherine Ross flick of the same name, “The Stepford Wives,” there are none of Oz’s famed puppets present. Miss Piggy, along with her relentless diva behavior and Yoda, with his understated, ontological musings about the force, have lately been somewhere where there are no mosquitoes.

They’re kicking back, enjoying themselves after decades of fine work, making the sporadic Weezer video or prequel appearance every now and then.

Had the guy who had his hand up their puppet asses for the last 25 years given thought to contacting their agents instead of those of his human stars (and their opaque, overstated performances) in the casting of this film, something better might have turned up. If nothing else, at least something funnier.

“The Stepford Wives” follows power couple Joanna Eberhart (Kidman) and Walter Kresby (Broderick), who are both executives at a high-ranking television network pulling in ratings by way of trashy reality show programming. When things end up going overboard, Joanna is downsized from her top-spot job to keep the network from going under. Walter quits, the family moves to Stepford, Conn., and that’s when things go slightly awry.

Joanna begins to suspect that there’s something wrong with the wives in Stepford-they are Betty Crocker perfect in every way. They have looks, social grace and attitudes of devoted servitude toward their husbands. Investigational humor of gender/relationship roles, themes and motifs ensues. Kidman and Broderick just don’t make it happen, and it’s questionable as to whether or not they even tried. Broderick consistently feels out of step-any depth of the struggle he has with his masculinity and family roles feels cheap and contrived, as does any attempted chemistry with Kidman.

Speaking of Kidman, who the film tends to rely on, her performance is careless and sloppy. She bounces from one persona to another amid clunky transitioning. As she crashes into being a power-hungry ex-CEO to potential Stepfordian perfection, none of her trademark power or charisma shows. The mess even gets so sloppy in parts that her Australian accent slips out in some of her dialogue-something Kidman almost never lets happen.

Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, as the Head Husband and Wife of Stepford, are rusted and creaking. Close’s best Susie Homemaker impersonation falls flat and comes off placated, even in her character’s most placated scenes.

Walken plays…Walken. Nothing new there. The best moments in front of the camera come from Bette Midler and newcomer Roger Bart as Joanna’s skeptical partners in crime. Midler dances and charms her way throughout, having a great time picking apart the idiosyncrasies of suburban living with charisma and chutzpah to spare. Bart’s performance rings of a sharper, younger Nathan Lane-he nails line after line without having the gay humor go cheap.

Midler and Bart’s performances are the only high-class components of the film-everything else seems picked off the designer discount rack. Oz’s direction is so one-dimensional that a much smaller-name director could have handled such a simple job. Granted, Oz could have been trying to make a point about being one-dimensional by doing so, but the point loses its edge when Oz fails to give it any depth whatsoever. Black humor and satire are already implicit in the plot, and leaking those qualities down onto everything from the dialogue to the vapid acting hurts more than it helps-and the screenplay needs all the help it could get.

“The Stepford Wives” could fall under several categories: remake, postmodern pop culture satire, star vehicle or black comedy with science fiction underpinnings. More than anything, though, “The Stepford Wives” simply falls under, descending to levels of Must-See-TV sitcom laughs that might as well be canned. At times, Oz’s film almost feels like an over exaggerated, celebrity-populated “Saturday Night Live” skit, spewing Starbucks table humor at pop culture without delivering a solid punch line or point. Some of the ideas are interesting, and some of the jokes are funny, but in the end, they prove to be better pursued in the comfort of your own home, via DVD player. Or, if you’re like the couple who sat next to me at the screening, pouring whiskey from a flask into your soda cup every 15 minutes. Those two certainly found it funny.

Domestic tranquility, indeed.

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