|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 24 June 2005|
When she landed the job of turning the popular old TV series “Bewitched” into a movie, Nora Ephron realized it contained a lot of notions that are definitely outmoded now, principally that a wife should be subservient to her husband, and that a woman should not use all her strengths. That formula made for a workable sitcom, partly due to the sunny, charming performance of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, the witch married to mortal Darrin.
The solution that Ephron found (she directed and co-wrote with her sister Delia Ephron) is not to adapt the series at all—but instead to do a movie about a revival of the series. That way she got the best of both worlds—and yet clearly didn’t know what to do with all the material she conjured up. Bewitched is a remarkably funny movie, but it’s as uneven as it is amusing. Individual scenes and some performances are delightful, but at other times nothing much is going on.
Adaptations of old TV series have gone many routes; there are those that have tried to mimic the original as closely as possible, such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” those that tried to ring changes on the original, like “Lost in Space,” some that went in bizarre directions such as “The Brady Bunch,” even those that spoofed the series they were based on, like “Starsky and Hutch.” Making a movie about making a remake of the original series is a new idea and, in this case, one that works reasonably well as a structure. It’s a little hard to explain but makes sense as you watch it.
Nicole Kidman is Isabel Bigelow, a witch herself, who comes from the sky into the San Fernando Valley, determined to live as though she were a normal mortal, and to refrain from using her magical powers. She hasn’t worked out the details, yet—things like money still perplex her. So she’s a little naïve but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on all challenges. Her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine) is dubious. He’s a randy old dude, convinced that “love” is just a word you use to get a woman to go to bed with you. Isabel is sure it’s something more.
Meanwhile, movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) has fallen from grace; his career has evaporated thanks to a series of boxoffice duds (we see a few very funny scenes from movies such as “An Onion for Willy”). He’s reduced to trying to get the role of Darrin in a revival of “Bewitched.” His weasely agent Richie (Jason Schwartzman) urges him to be the sheriff of ballsville, not the mayor of pussytown—be demanding and troublesome. The nervous Jack embraces the idea, but realizes that as Darrin, he’ll always play second fiddle to whoever plays Samantha. (He moans that on the original show, they changed Darrin actors—“and nobody noticed!”) So he wants a malleable unknown, not a potentially temperamental veteran.
Guess who he runs into?
Isabel is enchanted by his effusive attention, and does indeed get the role of Samantha. Then Jack does everything he can—which is quite a lot—to ensure that HE is the star of the show, and that Samantha barely gets in a single word. (There’s an amusing recreation of the well-known animated credits of the original series, based on Jack’s demands.) Unfamiliar with the ways of demanding, egotistical actors, Isabel remains charmed by Jack, even starting to fall in love with him, when she overhears him bragging about his success at essentially eliminating her from the show.
Then she gets angry. And she’s a witch.
Ferrell has lots of fun as the jittery but self-worshipping Jack. He tells someone “I’m Jack Wyatt.” When they respond, “I know,” he replies “Thank you.” He regards acting as better than being normal—“you get to pretend to be normal!” he exults. He’s so stuck on himself, so determined to make the husband the star of the series that should center on the wife that he somehow escapes falling for Isabel—until she starts putting the whammy on him. Her revenge takes very imaginative forms—the Ephrons come up with a time-rewind idea that pays off. (Unfortunately, the time sense of the movie itself gets somewhat scrambled.)
Kidman’s rarely had the opportunity to do comedy, but she rises to the occasion. She’s charming and winsome as Isabel, whose sunny delight at what being human offers her is infectious. As a witch, she wasn’t allowed to watch “Bewitched” as a child, so she catches up on the show, and takes Elizabeth Montgomery as her idol. (If you were a real fan of the late Montgomery, you will appreciate the warm, respectful treatment she’s accorded here.)
Isabel is open and emotional, but not mercurial; she’s clever and inventive and makes friends easily, such as neighbor Maria (Kristin Chenowith) and set worker Nina (Heather Burns). She also becomes friend with tough aging actress Iris Smythson (Shirley MacLaine), hired to play Endora, Samantha’s mother. Meanwhile, Nigel finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Iris.
The late Paul Lynde played exuberant Uncle Arthur on the series; he was Jack’s favorite character—Ferrell briefly does a spot-on impression of Lynde—and at the end, the movie veers off into sheer surrealism, centered on Uncle Arthur. Steve Carrell does an even better impression of Lynde, and is amusing in all his scenes. However, just what Uncle Arthur is can’t really be explained. He seems to be a warlock AND a figment of Jack’s imagination—who drives cars. YOU figure it out. Like Samantha, Isabel has a slightly dotty Aunt Clara, played so memorably on the series by Marion Lorne; Carole Shelley is a slightly different kind of flibbertigibbet, but she’s amusing in her few scenes.
Some reviews have complained that Ferrell and Kidman don’t strike any sparks, but I certainly thought they did. Not romantic sparks, really—this is more a comedy about romance than a romantic comedy—but comedy sparks galore. They’re clearly delighted to make each other laugh, something rarely seen in romantic movies—and yet a shared sense of humor is probably more important than many other reasons for romance.
With each new movie, Ferrell broadens his comic persona; here he’s extravagantly romantic at times, utterly oblivious at others, occasionally infuriatingly egocentric, at yet others collapsing into a big puddle of self-doubt. And he does it all with such energy that you can’t look away.
Unless, of course, he’s sharing the scene with Kidman. She’s one of the current stars the camera most loves—she never looks quite the same from movie to movie, and always slips into her roles like form-fitting clothes. As a child, Kidman was a big fan of “Bewitched,” watching it in reruns on Australian TV while her friends were out surfing. She also insists she’s a very shy person in real life, and here she brings that to the screen. Samantha was forthright and outgoing; Isabel is retiring and quiet—until she’s betrayed by Jack. Sometimes Ferrell is just a bit hard to believe as the wild-eyed Jack, but Kidman is always on the money.
Alas, the rest of the cast isn’t given anything like the opportunities that Ferrell and Kidman are. What’s the point of hiring the extremely versatile Michael Caine if all you’re going to have him do is stand around looking charming? We keep hoping for more from Nigel, but we never get it. Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine were first paired in “Gambit” (1966) and “Woman Times Seven” the next year—but haven’t worked together since. Unfortunately, the Ephrons can’t really find anything very interesting for these two charismatic people to do, although there is a surprise regarding Iris—a surprise that’s almost lost in the confusion of the latter half of the movie.
“Bewitched” is a bit of everything, and has some parts that are basically nothing. Individual scenes are funny and involving, but the structure overall is clumsy; the pacing of the scenes is brisk, the pacing of the movie is not. Ephron scatters the film with romantic songs, including, of course, “Bewitched” itself, but doesn’t come up with convincing falling-in-love scenes, though her two stars are very winning in these sequences.
Uneven though it is, when it works—which is frequently—“Bewitched” is a lot of fun. Not all it could have been, and Caine and MacLaine really deserved more to do, but it’s good summer entertainment.