You have to give “Bewitched” credit for trying to be something more than just another lousy feature-length remake of a mothballed television sitcom. By fashioning it as a movie about remaking the old show, Nora Ephron and her sister Delia seem to be trying for a kind of postmodern take on “Bewitched”–a “Meta-Bewitched,” if you will. But there the credit ends, because all the Ephrons have been able to come up with by way of story is a lame rip-off of “Bell, Book and Candle,” the 1958 romantic comedy in which Kim Novak cast a spell on Jimmy Stewart that made him fall in love with her. And though that movie was stolidly directed by Richard Quine, it at least had a grace and elegance that this loud, frantic and charmless reworking utterly lacks.
But the Ephrons aren’t finished with their reconstructive surgery yet. They have also transformed “Bewitched” into something we really have no need of–yet another Will Ferrell vehicle. This guy is certainly the most overexposed actor working today (in both senses of the term, since yet again he strips down for a nude scene–and believe me, an appearance by Ferrell au natural is one of the more gruesome sights to be found in American movies today–and that includes anything found in “Land of the Dead”). Yet although if memory serves Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha was the centerpiece of the TV series, and despite the fact that Ephron managed to persuade no less than Nicole Kidman to play her here, for some reason she’s shifted the focus to Ferrell’s Jack Wyatt, a washed-up movie star impoverished by an ongoing divorce and forced by his many big-screen flops (as well as by his desperate agent, played by Jason Schwartzman) to take a demeaning job on the tube–namely recreating the role of Darren, Sam’s non-warlock hubby, in a revived small-screen “Bewitched.” Jack is, of course, a preening, arrogant clod, and in order to make sure the spotlight is on him, he not only insists that Sam be played by an unknown but finds her himself. She’s Isabel Bigelow (Kidman), and guess what–she’s really a witch who, as we learn in an introductory scene with her astonished father Nigel (Michael Caine), wants to stop practicing magic and become a normal person–which apparently explains her airheaded, impractical persona (at one point she’s described as “not too bright,” a phrase that could be applied to the movie, too). Isabel’s no actress, of course, but she can wiggle her nose just like Montgomery did, and that seals the deal. And she’s happy to play second banana to Jack, who’s charmed her into thinking he needs her (and for whom, inexperienced in actual relationships, she easily falls), until she finds out that he’s merely been using her. That sets off Isabel’s spell-induced vengeance. Meanwhile, womanizer Nigel takes up with Iris Smythson (Shirley MacLaine), the new Endora, who turns out to be a witch, too. Apparently they’re a really substantial part of the population–you can’t walk around the block without bumping into one. (Of course, the fact that the story is set in Los Angeles may explain that.)
Thus does a promising idea go haywire. After establishing their premise, the Ephons show virtually no imagination in running with it. They try to solve the problem by throwing the spotlight onto Wyatt and then not only casting Farrell but encouraging him to engage his typical shtick without the slightest restraint, making the movie feel like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch stretched out beyond endurance. Kidman, meanwhile, is relegated pretty much to the background. That’s a pity, since she looks the part and exhibits a comedic spark that’s pretty much snuffed out before it can catch fire. As if the lame material she has to contend with in the early reels weren’t bad enough, the script later introduces a perfectly terrible conceit–the notion that she has the power to “rewind” time like a videotape so that events will occur differently the second time around. It’s a trick that nearly ruined the end of the first “Superman” movie, but there it was just a throwaway gimmick; here it forces us to relive stuff that was painfully unfunny on first viewing and doesn’t improve with repetition. (Most viewers will wish they had the power to rewind the entire movie back to the script conferences.) But it’s not just Kidman who’s wasted. Though Caine has a few decent lines, for the most part this vehicle offers him even less opportunity to shine than “Miss Congeniality” did, and poor MacLaine comes off even worse, looking positively glaceed. Schwartzman, like Ferrell, is urged to indulge his worst instincts, and Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth has to play dumber than Kidman as Sam’s hyper new neighbor. But the task of the actors is pretty hopeless when they’re confronted by a script as weak as the one the Ephrons have contrived and are directed so clumsily. (Remember that Nora helmed not only “Brainless”–sorry, “Sleepless in Seattle,” but also such gems as “Mixed Nuts,” “Lucky Numbers” and “Hanging Up.” She seems to have two gears in her repertoire: flat and hystical.) Even Nora’s heavy hand, though, shouldn’t take the rap for the excruciatingly awful imitation of Paul Lynde that Steve Carell offers in the last act; that’s his own doing. The sad litany continues with the glossy, glaring cinematography by John Lindley and George Fenton’s intolerably bouncy, point-making score (interrupted, of course, by some dreadful musical montages).
“Bewitched” is really the wrong title for this botched brew, but then “Cursed” was already taken. If there are any witches out there reading this, please wrinkle your noses and make the movie disappear.