Ditch the Witch

The big-screen Bewitched is less than enchanting

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click to enlarge WITCH GLITCH: Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell have a bizarre lack of chemistry. - John Bramley
John Bramley
WITCH GLITCH: Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell have a bizarre lack of chemistry.

Pop culture critics - and at this point doesn't that pretty much include all of us? - love arguing about old TV shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Here are two bits of "classic" pop flora and fauna from the core years of the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, featuring strong, supernaturally endowed females who, despite all their brains and brawn, use their powers primarily in the pursuit of domesticity. Bluntly put, these super-girls live to please their men.

And yet, even when those women folk appeared to be firmly under the thumbs of their respective male partners (Jeannie even called hers "Master"), we all knew who was really the boss.

The mixed messages boggle the mind, this (mostly male) desire for women who are both omnipotent sorceress and perfect homemaker. And you can bet this mania for a certain sort of scary yet non-threatening witchcraft was going on long before that proto-alpha male Francis Albert Sinatra crooned about never hooking up with a "nicer witch than you."

What can be gleaned from all of this is that, to practically no one's surprise, men are basically in the dark when it comes to women. As evidenced by the enduring popularity of shows like Bewitched, we guys will almost always resort to explaining away our bewilderment by simply telling ourselves that women are "magic."

That said, you might rack up the confusion of the old Bewitched series to a pack of writers/producers who I'd bet the farm were 99 percent male. But how then are we to excuse the cluelessness of the new big screen version of Bewitched by Sleepless in Seattle's chick-flick maven extraordinaire, Nora Ephron?

Ephron and her screenwriter sister Delia don't exactly give us a remake of the old television series, but something ostensibly different and more clever, at least in the minds of the writer-directors: a movie about remaking the original Bewitched, in which the actors involved in the remake turn out to mirror the characters they're playing. Unfortunately, most of this meta-meta stuff is more interesting in concept than in execution, and although the new Bewitched is sometimes mildly clever or mildly funny, it is rarely both at the same time, not even mildly.

Nicole Kidman plays Isabel, a real, live witch who, like Samantha in the TV show, just wants to settle down with some nice, ordinary mortal and live a normal life. The mortal she winds up with is Jack (Will Ferrell), a self-centered but goofily endearing actor who, as luck and overly cutesy scripting would have it - and oblivious to the fact that she's really a witch - chooses Isabel to play one in the Bewitched remake in which he's co-starring.

As dictated by formula, sparks fly (or at least we're supposed to assume they're flying, not that we'd know it from what's actually up there on screen). Boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl back again and off they fly on her broomstick.

The new Bewitched starts off on fairly solid ground, beginning with a healthy affection for the original series and a respect for Elizabeth Montgomery, aka Samantha, that borders on reverence. We're constantly reminded of Ms. Montgomery's smart, classy beauty (and the fact that all male viewers over the age of 6 back in 1968 had crushes on her), and when certain characters in Ephron's Bewitched begin dealing with problems by asking themselves "What would Samantha do?" her status is elevated to the nearly God-like.

Everyone knew Samantha was the real strength of the TV show - the male lead was at one point simply replaced by another actor (both named Dick, appropriately enough) and, despite the nascent post-modernism of it all, barely an eyebrow was raised. Montgomery is a tough act to follow, but Kidman gamely wrinkles up her nose, looking cute and sassy in floppy hats and little T-shirts that tease "I am a witch." Ferrell has a few amusing moments, and Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are perfectly cast (without having much to actually do), but if it weren't for Kidman, there'd really be nothing worth talking about here.

The movie spends lots of time riffing away on popular culture and watching Kidman as she revels in extensive clips of her prototypes in vintage Bewitched episodes. When the standard romantic comedy schema kicks in, though, the movie quickly turns stale and insincere, with Kidman and Ferrell going through a series of motions that includes at least one obligatory but totally unnecessary musical montage in which the couple prances about pretending to have fun. As a romantic comedy - which is what Bewitched is at its core - the movie is a complete dud, with cardboard-thin characters we don't particularly care about and a bizarre lack of chemistry between its leads.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers spend so much time winking at the audience in the new Bewitched that we begin to feel like we're witnessing some sort of a nervous condition. And in any event, all the postmodern winking in the world can't disguise what is essentially just another boring and curiously unromantic romantic comedy. Bewitched even throws in a line alluding to movies that are "crass attempts to remarket nostalgia at the expense of new ideas," but the statement feels less like the slyly subversive poke it was undoubtedly intended as and more like some half-assed attempt at an apology.

Just because the Ephrons have correctly identified a problem doesn't mean they're not part of it, and for all the pomo tinkering, Bewitched is as disposable a lump of pure nostalgia as Scooby Doo 2. Bewitched enshrines its little parcel of pop culture and then tells us it's only kidding, sneaks around the edges of romantic comedy territory and doesn't even bother to put its heart into it. The movie throws all sorts of half-cooked odds and ends at the wall, waiting for something to stick. Bewitched is almost endearing in its desperation to be all things to all people, but it winds up not much at all.

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