So influential were book and film that the word “Stepford” entered the lexicon as shorthand for creeping regimentation. People in tract-house communities live Stepford lives; politicians who parrot safe causes are Stepford candidates, etc. etc.

It’s unlikely that Frank Oz’s, ahem, “comic re-imagining” of the Levin classic will cause any such cultural reverberations.

Starring Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Glenn Close, it’s a skimpy in-name-only adaptation that takes Levin’s basic premise – Connecticut town full of nerdy, insecure hubbies turns wives into curvaceous, cookie-baking robots – and exploits it for the kind of frantic farce you may recall from “Death Becomes Her” and Oz’s own “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Now, instead of a sheepish aspiring photographer, newcomer Joanna Eberhart (Kidman) is a just-sacked network president who has retreated from the rat race with her dutiful husband (Matthew Broderick) to lick wounds and re-jigger her priorities. Now, instead of a leggy free spirit and a voluptuous socialite, Joanna’s co-conspirators are a brusque best-selling author (Midler) and a gay architect (a very funny Roger Bart). Now, instead of a trendy suburb, Stepford is a tony gated community with fully mechanized homes that include talking refrigerators, diagnostic toilets and robotic dogs.

With the gender wars now enjoying something of a detente, Oz and playwright-screenwriter Paul Rudnick (collaborators on “In & Out”) have turned what was once a creepy little allegory into a boisterous three-ring circus that includes dance sequences, movie in-jokes, a “Manchurian Candidate” subplot and a funny reality-TV lampoon called “I Can Do Better!”

In other words, “The Stepford Wives” has been Stepfordized into a big-budget, star-heavy commodity, complete with computer effects and not-so-subliminal product placements (Apple computers, etc.). It’s the very thing Levin warned against all those years ago.

A pity. Oz’s ensemble is, almost across the board, more versatile than that of the original. Close and Christopher Walken are especially fun as the Wellingtons, the suspiciously chirpy founders of Stepford. Close’s Claire is the exuberant realtor-social director, and Walken’s Mike is a former Microsoft employee who heads the Stepford Men’s Association, where the paunchy and balding smoke big cigars, play robot wars – and swap smarmy jokes about their love slaves who, with the click of a remote, dispense bedroom assurances of “You’re The King!”

Oz and Rudnick also improve upon the downer (many said “sexist”) endings of the book and original movie. Well, at least their first twist ending is an improvement. But then, like automaton auteurs who have short-circuited, they don’t know when to quit and a cute idea turns tiresome, with more forced punch lines than a wind-up Rodney Dangerfield.


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