Yes, it's a remake. No, it isn't as suspenseful as the 1975 original with Katharine Ross. In fact, it's not scary at all.

It's a hoot.

The original "Stepford Wives" is a staple of late-night television. In a gated enclave, overtly traditional men have replaced their wives with perfect robotic clones. They keep perfect homes; they have hourglass figures; they do their husbands' every bidding with a perfect smile. And they never talk back or question their subservient status.

This time around, nothing has changed except the tone. It's a comedy, folks. You can laugh. Indeed, judging by the audience of eight mature couples at Long Beach, Wash.'s Neptune Theater Friday afternoon, you will laugh.

And I can understand why stars of the caliber of Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken and lead Nicole Kidman signed on. They must have been cracking up every time wacky director Frank Oz yelled "Cut!"

Kidman plays an over-achieving, never-home TV executive who collapses after her outrageous reality show turns sour. She and hubby (Matthew Broderick) flee ugly Manhattan for leafy Connecticut to patch things up.

Stepford is perfect. No crime, no litter, no worries. The menfolk have their club, the ladies their spa. And their perfect lives are orchestrated by Walken and Close, perfect community leaders, perpetually cheerful, letting nothing spoil their perfect world.

But when a robotic wife sparks suspicion, Kidman's recovering character teams with rebel Midler and a delightful gay neighbor (Roger Bart) to play detectives, worming their way into the apple cart. To say more would spoil any surprises.

Midler has the best lines of all. She plays a character she has perfected over the years, the mouthy slob. Then - complete with microchip insert - she becomes the perfect wife and mom. Bart milks his camp part with gusto, and Kidman keeps a straight face. Again, Close reveals her skill in comedy, especially when leading an aerobics class in high heels. Walken and Broderick are well cast, suitably dull - because the women and Bart steal this show.

Sure, it fails to properly debate women's roles, it plays up stereotypes and lacks the suspense of the original. It does all of that. But it is funny. Not since "Airplane" and "Revenge of the Nerds" have I laughed so freely. Like those classics, many laughs Friday were in anticipation of what was to come.

It won't win Academy Awards, though it might be nominated for costumes (and hairstyling, if they have an Oscar for that) and it likely will sink into oblivion, eclipsed by those tedious trolls and space monsters on most movie screens lately. But in an era of unnecessary remakes ("The Italian Job," "Ocean's Eleven," "The Thomas Crown Affair"), here's one that clever director Oz has enhanced.

"The Stepford Wives"

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and language

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Roger Bart and Christopher Walken

Directed by: Frank Oz

Length: One hour 33 minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema in Seaside and Neptune Twin Theatres in Long Beach, Wash.

Short take: Frank Oz's remake of "The Stepford Wives" is a dark comedy about a burned-out couple who escape the pressures of the city for a too-perfect lifestyle in a community with a dark secret.

Rating: Three stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: The actress who played Idgie Threadgoode in the 1991 hit, "Fried Green Tomatoes," played Katharine Ross' daughter in the original "Stepford Wives." Who is she?

Answer: Mary Stuart Masterton.


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