BewitchedReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/23/05 23:49:24
It is clearly evident that no one involved with the making of “Bewitched” wanted to make just another big-screen transfer of a small-screen property. As instincts go, this was a particularly smart one since the very things that made the 1964-72 sitcom, essentially a weekly version of “Bell, Book and Candle,” a favorite with audiences back then–the enormous appeal of the late Elizabeth Montgomery and the impact of the dazzling-for-the-time special effects–no longer exist today. However, if they didn’t want to make a film version of “Bewitched,” then they should have simply declined when Sony sent them zillions of dollars to do it and gone on to do an adaptation of Proust or the new Abbas Kiarostami joint or whatever it is that actors and filmmakers do in their spare time. Instead, they took the bait and inexplicably decided to somehow make the project more hip and relevant by transforming it into a meta-movie mishmash that tries to break the fourth wall and winds up pancaking into it. The result is a seriously confused and only fitfully amusing car wreck that is never quite as clever as it thinks it is and which will seriously annoy anyone who might have actually wanted to see a straightforward adaptation.Here, Will Ferrell plays Jack Wyatt, a former movie star whose career has hit the skids in recent years–his most recent film effort, we learn, set a record for not selling a single copy on DVD. He is so desperate in fact that his sleazy agent (Jason Schwartzman) can only get him hired to play Darren in a new television remake of “Bewitched.” Even though he is clutching at straws, Jack chooses to use them to beat his benefactors over the head by demanding that the actress playing Samantha be a total unknown so that he will be the unquestioned star of the show. Instead of doing the sensible thing–kicking his ass to the curb and hiring the likes of Ron Silver or Ted McGinley–the producers agree to this demand and set about finding a new face for the role. Jack himself stumbles upon a non-actress named Isabel (Nicole Kidman) whose ability to twitch her nose a la Montgomery seems to make her perfect for the part.
He doesn’t know the half of it. It turns out that Isabel is a real, genuine bona-fide witch who has decided to leave Witchville (which is located just outside of Portland, I believe) and renounce her mystical powers in order to make a quiet, normal life for herself in the bucolic surroundings of Los Angeles. Even though she insists that she isn’t an actress, Isabel agrees to come to the studio because–well, because if she doesn’t, the movie ends early and we can rush out and catch “Land of the Dead”–and after an “improv” exercise, in which she answers made-up witch-related questions with utter honesty, the producers fall in love with her and insist on hiring her. Even though Isabel’s warlock father (Michael Caine, deploying the same dedication to his craft that led to his appearances in such films as “The Swarm,” “Jaws: The Revenge” and the remake of “Get Carter”) is appalled by the notion of his daughter appearing in a show that mocks witches and warlocks, Isabel is thrilled, especially since she has inexplicably begun to crush of Jack.
At this point, we are less than thirty minutes into the film and the idiocies are already beginning to stack up. First of all, there is no way that any network is going to pick up a program where the stars are a guy just off of his own personal “Battlefield Earth” and a complete unknown. Second, while there would seem to be an interesting idea in the notion of Isabel, by appearing in such a show, appearing to others of her kind as a sort on Uncle Tom witch, it is an idea that is brought up once briefly by Caine and then ignored. The other key problem at this point is that Kidman and director/co-writer Nora Ephron have fatally miscalculated the approach to take towards the character of Isabel–she is supposed to be pure and innocent–or as pure or innocent as witches get–but she comes off as someone suffering from some kind of mental handicap–imagine Chance the Gardener without the wit or social skills. (On the other hand, such a development might explain her otherwise inexplicable fascination with Jack.)
Things get more convoluted once production begins and Jack reverts to his egocentric ways by making diva demands (“I want you to make me twenty espressos and bring me the best one!”) and hamming it up in order to steal focus from his co-star. Before long, Isabel decides to get back at him by deploying her powers to trip him up–forcing him to speak gibberish instead of the written dialogue or changing his personality so that he becomes amazingly generous and kind to her, even when he discovers that focus groups love her and want to see him run over by a truck–but can’t bring herself to do anything too drastic because she still unaccountably likes the lunk. Eventually, she confess her secret to him and he freaks, mostly because it allows Ephron to write even more scenes in which women sit around whining about their love lives while eating ice cream and where men realize that they have made a horrible mistake and race against time to proclaim their love to those same women before they disappear forever.
As perplexing as this sounds in description form, it is nothing compared to the sight of how it actually plays out. Perhaps as the result of numerous screenplay drafts, “Bewitched” tries several different approaches to the material without ever finding one that works. At various points, it tries to be a straightforward boy-meets-witch romantic comedy, a straightforward adaptation of the television show (a few characters from the old show pop up as part of the reality of the film’s world–what happens if they turn on a rerun of “Bewitched” (which obviously exists in this world) and find themselves popping up?), a self-aware genre deconstruction in the manner of “Adaptation” and a Hollywood satire that suggests that the magic of Hollywood may consist partly of actual magic. (Shirley MacLaine pops up as the actress playing Aunt Endora and appears to be a witch herself.) Any one of the approaches might have yielded some interesting results but Ephron flits between them from scene to scene until it becomes painfully obvious that she never figured out which one to choose and decided instead to throw them all up against the wall and kept whatever stuck. The media satire is especially toothless and disappointing–the only thing we get out of it is the sense that Ephron hasn’t actually watched a television show since the original “Bewitched” went off the air.
Even this might not have been so bad if Ephron had taken the screwy set-up as an excuse to throw some interesting curveballs into the mix–suppose that, in honor of the legendary Dick York-Dick Sargent Darren switch midway through the run of the series, Ephron replaced Ferrell halfway through with someone like Jim Carrey without ever acknowledging it? Unfortunately, whatever qualities that Ephron may have as a filmmaker, edginess is not one of them and she is content to simply make everything as bland and inoffensive as possible–everything, right down to the soundtrack, is so soothing and pastel that watching this film is like being trapped in a Bed, Bath & Beyond for two hours. And the few times when she does try to cut loose–such as with a narrative gambit that I would accuse her of having pinched from Michael Haeneke’s “Funny Games” if I thought for a moment that she had actually heard of him or the last-minute inclusion of an admittedly fictional character into the proceedings–she blows them by either running them into the ground or, in the case of the latter, by making them so stupid that they simply defy any rational explanation.
On the surface, casting Kidman and Ferrell in these roles must have sounded like a good idea but the results are fairly disastrous. Together, they generate no charm or chemistry and it is impossible to believe for a second that either has any feelings for the other. Separately, Kidman has the Elizabeth Montgomery look down and could have played an interesting variation of Samantha but is stuck with the kind of unbelievable and atrophied material that is usually the hallmark of a long-running show on its last legs–she looks just as bored and confused as the audience. Ferrell does score a few laughs here and there with material that I presume that he and his team of uncredited writers shoehorned into the script–I liked a moment when Isabel confesses her secret to Jack and he, in turn, confesses something just as horrifying, that he is a Clippers fan–but it becomes obvious early on that Ephron doesn’t really have an idea of how to blend Ferrell’s weirdo schtick with the more sedate goings-on. As for the likes of Caine and MacLaine, while they at least appear to be having some fun with their brief appearances and serve as a welcome distraction, it doesn’t really make up for the fact that both are fairly superfluous to the proceedings.“Bewitched” is this year’s “The Stepford Wives,” a seemingly sure-fire update of a familiar property that is undone by the simple fact that no one involved had any strong idea about what such an update should consist of. Instead of taking the time to either figure it out or quietly abandon it, everyone panicked and threw a lot of money and talent at the problem while crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. It isn’t the worst TV adaptation I’ve ever seen–hell, after “The Honeymooners,” it isn’t even the worst one of the month–but it is a confusing and disappointing one. As I said at the beginning of this review, it is clear that no one involved with this film wanted to make a film adaptation of “Bewitched.” By the end of this one, I can’t imagine there being anyone in the audience who would ever want to see one again.
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