Dir: Frank Oz. US. 2004.93mins.

The third filmedadaptation of the Ira Levin thriller about suburban fembots on the rampage in afrosting-coated, master-planned community has been given an extreme makeoverredolent of Death Becomes Her, She-Devil and The Witches OfEastwick, forgettable female-driven star vehicles with limited substanceand depth, too many garish special effects and not enough laughs.

While the summer movie crowdmight be initially intrigued by Kidman's foray into black comedy, the bad wordof mouth that has plagued this high-gloss Paramount/DreamWorks co-productionfor months hints at a less than lucrative domestic theatrical run despiteclever counter-programming against the family-friendly Shrek and HarryPotter juggernauts.

Foreign markets seem morepromising for a film that takes a barbed swipe at the way few Americans livenow - specifically the white, monied, self-satisfied suburban drones whoconstitute the most coveted segment of George W. Bush's voting bloc.

Nicole Kidman stars as JoannaEberhart, a successful New York City network executive whose slate of garishreality TV hits like I Can Do Better (husband and wife mate swap on aremote tropical island and decide whether or not to stay together) earns herthe corporate axe after a disgruntled contestant opens fire during a glitzynetwork event.

Ferried upstate by herdoting, emasculated husband Walter (Matthew Broderick), to the gated enclave ofStepford - land of creamy wainscotting and perfect porticos - Joanna becomesinstantly suspicious of the blond housewife automatons held under the sway ofperennially perky real-estate maven Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), anuber-suburbanite and 1950's castoff whose retired-CEO husband runs thecabal-like Stepford Men's Association as though it were Yale's elite Skull& Bones society - hello George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Joanna bonds with dumpyself-help authoress Bobbi Markowitz (Bette Midler), whose unkempt home andsnide cynicism provides relief from the seemingly robotic housewives who flockto book club meetings and neighbourhood picnics like programmed drones. GayManhattan exile Roger Bannister (Broadway transplant Roger Bart, in the film'ssingular standout performance, one that verges on gay minstrelsy) rounds outthe rebel triumvirate: a suave, swishy saucepot betrothed to a gay Republicandetermined to find acceptance among his whitewashed male cronies.

While Joanna and her possecasually subverts Stepford's creepy conformity by conforming themselves - "Whatif we gave it a try, for real'" Joanna wonders aloud, while churning outcupcakes by the hundredfold - Walter falls deeper under the thrall of the men'sassociation, which has invented a method for transforming housewives intoprogrammable machines controlled by gold-plated handheld consoles resembling afusion of dog bone and vibrator - take that, feminism!

During a demonstration, onebuxomly breasted robot wife dispenses cash from her mouth at the push of abutton. It's but one unsettling, unfunny sight gag among many in a film thatpurports to satirize modern consumer life but ultimately winds up feeling asrobotically conceived as its own crisply coiffed subjects.

Decked out in a petite,wedge-style hairdo redolent of Annette Bening's embattled American Beautycharacter, Kidman initially exudes a cracker-jack comic timing during the NewYork City sequence that lends Wivessome fleeting early promise as a screwball satire of corporate excess.

But once the jettisoned execfalls into a pill haze and gets whisked off against her will to Stepford, thefilm resorts to an endless series of comic muggings by its mostly wastedsupporting cast, thrust into increasingly ridiculous plot shenanigans that defycoherence when the science-fiction component kicks in. Any sign of Kidman'scomic gifts gets drowned in the din of this chaotic mess.

With predictable gusto,Midler chews vast soundstages of scenery as the token Stepford Jew, a mouthyauthor of self-help tomes whose disorganised personal style has rendered herthe neighbourhood pariah - she's done this shtick so often in her Touchstonecomedies that it finally wears out its welcome. Likewise, Walken unleashes hiscreepily familiar Walkenisms, Lovitz his oafish Lovitzisms, Broderick his prim,blue-blooded Broderickisms, Close her bunny-boiling Close-isms inspired by Fatal Attraction.

Little in The StepfordWives is left to the imagination. Faith Hill provides a witty but wastedpiece of casting as the most robotic and obedient of Stepford housewives - acrafty swipe at the sort of aerosol-laden pop cheese that has Stepford-ized thecountry music industry, if not the mainstream movie industry itself. But Hillis a fleeting presence at best. Blink and you'll miss her - never mind all thather presence suggests about the state of commodified popular culture.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnickseems to have lost his lustre as a master pop satirist, infusing Wives with a fleeting wit that's dwarfedby an outre production design rife with master-planned manor homes belyinggarishly showy interiors - Midler included. The gifted scribe mined similarterrain in the Addams Family films aswell as in another Frank Oz comedy, In& Out, which also examined uptight community values run amok. But hisfunniest lines here consist of AOL and Banana Republic jokes.

He aims to lampoon corporatemalfeasance, consumer frenzy and self-aggrandising white suburban bliss - thevery combination of which led to Martha Stewart's recent fall from grace. Whatcould have been a shrewd, up-to-the-minute sociological satire of modern consumerlife instead becomes a showcase for hammy, over-the-top acting and shoddy,computerised special effects designed to appease the lowest common denominator.

If there's anything positiveto say about the far-from-heavenly Stepford Wives is that it arrives ina season of glitzy popcorn movies that, at the very least, have attempted toexplore contemporary issues, albeit through the prism of the Hollywoodspectacle, where the message is frequently muddled under an avalanche ofcomputer-driven flash.

From the crumbling empire ofTroy to the global-warming meltdown of The Day After Tomorrow, Wivescontinues this summer's grandiose examination of The Way We Live Now - or mightdo, if we don't watch out. But like its contemporaries, the medium faroutstrips the message. The result is instantly forgettable fare. Perhaps"soulless spectacle" is the way we live now - it's too bad that has to extendto such soulless entertainment.

Prod cos: Scott Rudin Productions, De Line Pictures
US dist:
Paramount Pictures
Int'l dist:
DreamWorks SKG/UIP
Exec prods:
Ron Bozman, Kari LynSelig
Scott Rudin, Donald DeLine, Edgar J Scherick, Gabriel Grunfeld
Paul Rudnick, based on thenovel by Ira Levin
Rob Hahn
Prod des:
Jackson DeGovia
Jay Rabinowitz
David Arnold
Main cast:
Nicole Kidman, MatthewBroderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, FaithHill, Jon Lovitz, David Marshall Grant