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Domo Arigato, Mrs. Roboto

A fancy cast does little to enliven “The Stepford Wives.”

All potentially offensive traces of thought have been carefully scrubbed away in this year’s update of the original novel by “Rosemary’s Baby” author Ira Levin. It’s as if Joan Crawford, armed with a canister of Little Dutch Boy, gave the script a thorough going over, on the lookout for anything that might trouble members of a desirable demographic. What remains is a grinning idiot of a movie, a cinematic Stepford wife enamored of its own shallowness.

We first see the town of Stepford through the eyes of a couple played by Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick. They’re escaping Manhattan, preposterously depicted as a gynocracy where well-heeled Amazons lord it over their pliant male underlings. Kidman, playing a television executive whose career has just imploded, needs a quieter life. Broderick, therefore, shepherds her and their kids into a community whose gates have the power to exclude not only the lower orders, but also the cultural byproducts of the pill and no-fault divorce.

The newcomers are quickly taken in hand by the de-facto rulers of the town, Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) and her husband, Mike (Christopher Walken). Claire teaches an increasingly alarmed Kidman how to prune away all pesky traces of her individuality by immersing herself in the art of cupcake baking. Mike inducts Broderick into the mysterious Stepford Men’s Club, where toy monster trucks demolish one another to the nacho-choked roar of the town’s menfolk, and the darkness at the heart of all the creepy domestic bliss on display is finally revealed.

Director Frank Oz and “Addams Family Values” screenwriter Paul Rudnick go to great pains to muddy the straightforward gender politics of the original movie. Yet their contemporary revisions are innocuous enough to avoid all charges of relevance. One of the “wives” is a gay man, whose (utterly tame) flamboyance wounds his square partner. What all the victims share isn’t their sex, but the fact that they’re more successful than their resentful mates. For example, the campy gay guy, who seems like a frazzled also-ran from the “Queer Eye” casting call, is, in fact, a brilliant, driven architect.

The sense that nothing really is at stake here is heightened by the banality of the wifely trio we’re supposed to be rooting for. There’s the witty, accomplished gay man, Kidman’s barracuda of an executive, and a loud-mouthed author of self-help books for women (Bette Midler), whose thrown-together attire and chronic slovenliness are supposed to be signs of an unassailable authenticity. Unable to endow any of the characters with a real personality, the movie doesn’t show us individuals threatened with robotic extinction, but mannequins compelled to exchange one outfit of stereotypes for another. *1/2 S

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