YOU CAN ALWAYS depend on Paul Rudnick for laughs -- lots of them. The screenwriter, novelist and playwright (who is also the funnyman behind the curtain of fictional columnist Libby Gelman-Waxner) turns them out by the bag, as he showed in both "Addams Family" movies and "In & Out."
Gags were the bread and butter of those movies. But in "The Stepford Wives," an adaptation of novelist Ira Levin's cautionary tale and the 1975 film of the same name, the Rudnick formula is stale business indeed. Rudnick and director Frank Oz (who wouldn't know a serious comedy if it fractured his funny bone) take to the satirical task too gleefully. The result: an empty comedy that takes hackneyed potshots at consumerism.
Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a cutthroat host of a fabulously successful reality TV show and the youngest president of the EBS television network. When a disgruntled TV show participant goes into a psychotic shooting rage, Joanna's show collapses, and she finds herself suffering a nervous breakdown.
Her mild-mannered husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), decides it's time to make a fresh start. So he drives her and the two kids to Stepford, Conn., an idyllic corner of suburban affluence, where the houses are ridiculously large and the people are pleasant but strange. This is the land of Betty Crocker gone insane, where too many beautiful wives (and dementedly zealous homemakers) defer like slaves to their husbands. These women make hot muffins, take care of the kids, obsess about cleaning house and are always ready to make their husbands feel like stud-kings.
Joanna, who makes friends with New York transplants Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and architect Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), is disturbed by what she sees. But Walter doesn't think things are so bad.
The best performance comes from Glenn Close as Stepford's de facto host, a bizarrely upbeat being who welcomes the new couple into this artificial paradise. But she's a one-note creation. Kidman certainly has the jaded frostiness needed for a power executive who turns slowly warmer. But here, she's betrayed by a skin-deep script that never permits her to get going. She's a pawn in the comic action. There's no room for maneuvering. She was given that kind of space in "To Die For," as the dry-ice, murderous TV personality Suzanne Stone. And she used it.
Speaking of the movie's thinness, how do you "make fun" of reality TV, McMansions, SUVs and materialistic malaise when they're so endemic and so obvious? It's like teasing televangelists, used-car salesmen and lawyers: too easy, on-the-nose and free of surprise. "The Stepford Wives" provides funny but mutely safe giggles about former frat boys and nerds who have turned their wives into robots. The theme sags with banality from the get-go, and it's only Rudnick's humor that helps you get through any of it.
Oh, let's ruin one Rudnick joke for you. It's worth paying tribute to his humor. During that reality TV show, which is called "I Can Do Better!," married couples are sent to an island where both spouses are separated and feted by attractive sexual partners. The finale occurs when the spouses reunite and decide if they want to stay married or move on. The husband Hank, who says he has only ever slept with his wife, is sure he wants to stay married. But the wife, who clearly has cavorted with the hunks she was alone with, points out that in her old life, "I only slept with one man and that was usually Hank."
Wicked, wicked. And yet, not quite wicked enough to break the movie out of its teeny-tiny cul-de-sac.
THE STEPFORD WIVES (PG-13, 93 minutes) -- Contains sexual content and some obscenity. Area theaters.