Movie review: 'Bewitched'

EntertainmentTelevisionBewitched (tv program)MoviesCelebritiesNora EphronArts and Culture

2 stars (out of four)

Nicole Kidman's good luck with noses ("Hours"-wise) hasn't entirely vanished. As it turns out, she can crinkle her proboscis as adorably in the new movie "Bewitched" as Elizabeth Montgomery did in the 1960s TV series on which it's based.

But that's the last of the really good news about this picture. The new "Bewitched," directed and co-written by Nora Ephron, is bothered and bewildered, an uninspired misfire of a TV-series knockoff that, despite its great cast and smart filmmakers, never manages to scare up much magic.

This film "Bewitched" crashes to Earth faster than Kidman, in Montgomery's old role of wife-witch Samantha, can wiggle her nose or cast a spell. Offhand, you wouldn't guess that a comedy based on the well-liked, slightly campy fantasy-sitcom about a befuddled suburbanite married to a charming witch-in-disguise could end up this unfunny, especially with a cast headed by Kidman (as the witch), Will Ferrell (as her TV hubby), Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine.

Those actors can pull out any laugh any scriptwriters can craft for them, and quite a few more besides. So where did this movie go wrong?

Start with the premise. The sisters Ephron (Delia Ephron serves as co-writer) haven't cooked up what you usually get in movies like this, a dopey reworking of the original TV show plot. Instead, they imagine their movie taking place in the world that produced the original TV series, where a new couple—narcissistic movie actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) and unknown beauty Isabel Bigelow (Kidman)—are playing the roles of Darren and Samantha in a "Bewitched" TV series remake. The impetus: Jack, desperate to salvage a career marred by a recent major flop, agrees to play Darren, but only if the producers hire a non-competitive unknown as Samantha and downplay her role enough to let him steal the show.

Spotting Isabel and her hyperactive nose behind some bookshelves, Jack insists on hiring her. But, unbeknownst to this egomaniac, Isabel is a real witch who quickly develops a crush on him, while her warlock dad Nigel (Caine), initially against her participation, falls for the grand diva actress Iris Smythson (MacLaine), who's playing Agnes Moorehead's old part of Samantha's witch-mom Endora.

Other supernatural types pop up too, including Isabel's witch aunt Clara (played by Carole Shelley) and another version of the old show's smirkingly effete Uncle Arthur, the old Paul Lynde role re-created by Steve Carell, who proves that Lynde may be irreplaceable. As the series goes on, Jack's scheme fails disastrously; it's Isabel who becomes the star, on and offscreen.

The idea of using a "Bewitched" TV remake may sound bright to begin with, but is that really a TV series possibility that makes any sense? One wonders why the Ephron sisters didn't imagine something likelier and funnier—like a big-budget, big-studio "Bewitched" movie remake starring Jack and Isabel. The idea that Jack would try to revamp an ailing movie star career by re-creating on TV the role of one of the blander sitcom husbands ever (a part so utterly interchangeable that it was played by two different actors on TV with no noticeable damage) is a stretch. So is the notion that the show's producers, in the post-feminist age, would accept Jack's plot to reduce the beloved Samantha to an also-ran played by an unknown, and then let him try to walk all over her on camera.

Nora Ephron could have come up with some delicious jokes about the stupidity of most TV series knockoff movies—the way they get tangled up and ruined in big salaries, marketing strategies and feuding egos—but that might have struck too close to home.

Instead, you simply have to try to enjoy the stars' company and the Ephrons'. And Kidman's Isabel and Ferrell's Jack never generate enough mutual spark to keep us spellbound by either her hocus-pocus or his hanky-panky. It's not the actors' fault. Jack as written is such a selfish, silly doofus, one doesn't want Isabel to be cursed with him. And though there is one genuinely imaginative notion in the movie—the moment where Isabel changes her life by rewinding and erasing, as if it were a tape, an entire liaison with Jack—it's not even original. One guesses the Ephrons got the gag from Michael Haneke's recent German art film, "Funny Games," if not "Superman" and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."

The other disappointment is the seemingly surefire matchup of Caine and MacLaine, here staging a reunion of sorts 29 years after the 1966 comic thriller "Gambit." But they get caught in the doldrums too, in parts both too slight and too short. Even though MacLaine comes up with a sharp pastiche of Moorehead's tart witchery and Caine casts a suave eye on all the nonsense around him, they're both wasted.

The original "Bewitched," created by Sol Saks, was one of several male-fantasy shows of the '60s where an ordinary Joe had a girlfriend or wife with magical powers; the other was the fluffy Barbara Eden-Larry Hagman sexy-genie series "I Dream of Jeannie." But though they went against the feminist grain of the '60s, both "Bewitched" and "Jeannie," perversely, may have appealed more to women because their female leads had such superhuman powers, even if they mainly used them to get and hold their men.

Ephron tries to give the movie a more obviously feminist spin. Doofus Jack and sophisticated Nigel both fall under the spell of their women and Jack gets his career comeuppance as well. But despite all its good intentions, politically and artistically, "Bewitched" really feels like a movie where the creative energy flagged in the middle of the project, where the Ephrons just began going through the big-movie motions.

If Nora Ephron often seems a better writer than director, it may be because, despite the success of "Sleepless in Seattle," which she directed but didn't write, her best and funniest movie remains "When Harry Met Sally"—which she wrote but didn't direct. Couldn't she try to recapture some of that old black magic instead of jumping on the prefab TV-knockoff movie bandwagon? Here, the witchcraft is empty.

mwilmington@tribune.com

- - - - -

"Bewitched"

Directed by Nora Ephron; written by Nora and Delia Ephron; based on the television series created by Sol Saks; photographed by John Lindley; edited by Tia Nolan; production designed by Neil Spisak; art director Steve Arnold; music by George Fenton; produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick/Penny Marshall production; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language including sex and drug references, and partial nudity).

Isabel Bigelow/Samantha - Nicole Kidman

Jack Wyatt/Darren - Will Ferrell

Iris Smythson/Endora - Shirley MacLaine

Nigel Bigelow - Michael Caine

Richie - Jason Schwartzman

Maria Kelly - Kristin Chenoweth

Nina - Heather Burns

Uncle Arthur - Steve Carell

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EntertainmentTelevisionBewitched (tv program)MoviesCelebritiesNora EphronArts and Culture
  • Make a night of it

    Find: • Recommended dining • Recommended bars

Comments
Loading