The 1967 version of “Bedazzled,” a modern comic riff on the Faust story, starred the team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; it didn’t come anywhere near to the sublime humor of the duo’s stage revue “Beyond the Fringe” (in which they appeared along with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller), but was intermittently funny, something that was inevitable given that Cook penned the script. The fact that this glitzy new version, jam-packed with special effects, stars Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley signals that it takes very different approach from the rather frumpy, cantakerous British original. It’s bigger, splashier, more conventional, more frantic–everything, it would seem, but funnier.
That’s not to say that “Bedazzled” is awful–indeed, it’s a pleasant surprise by comparison to its trailer, which made the picture look like a real dog; the studio had, moreover, delayed its release by some months–usually a sure sign of a stinker. But the team of Harold Ramis and Larry Gelbert have managed to make the flick mildly amusing, even if it’s little more than a series of sketches that wouldn’t have been out of place on the old “Carol Burnett” show and there’s absolutely no subtlety in its comic approach.
The plot centers on Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser), an overeager doofus working at a computer firm who’s besotted with oblivious co-worker Alison Gardner (Frances O’Connor) and is shortly visited by the devil, in the person of Elizabeth Hurley, who offers him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. The remainder of the picture briefly recounts the troubled course of each of the scenarios Elliot chooses for himself (and for Alison, of course): in every case, needless to say, the slinky Beelzebub tosses some unexpected element into the fantasy mix which ruins it and sends the guy scampering back for another chance. Each of the “dream” sequences (Elliot as Colombian drug lord, Elliot as basketball star, Elliot as sensitive guy, etc.) is rather like a “Saturday Night Live” skit, except for the fact that they’re far more spiffily mounted: all have some genial, if sophomoric, sight gags and a few yucks, and most give Fraser an opportunity to mug furiously in heavy makeup. But none of them really go beyond one-joke premises, and so they end up seeming more than a trifle tired as the lumber their way to predictable conclusions.
Fraser does yeoman service in trying to put all the bits across, but he goes overboard in the pathetic dweeb material and is about as broad as can be imagined in his series of fantasy vaudeville turns. As he’s shown in the past (in “Blast from the Past,” for instance), Fraser’s an amiable light comedian, and he can handle slapstick decently enough too, but it would have been better had he tried for even a hint of restraint here. Ramis, however, has never been a subtle director, and he obviously encouraged his leading man to go full-out at every moment, relentlessly laying on the funny faces, grimaces, and exaggerated inflections. The result eventually grows wearying, and before the end you might find yourself observing, as I did (since Ramis insists on shooting too often in oppressive close-ups), how very bulbous Fraser’s nose is in profile. (I’m certain that’s not what’s supposed to be most memorable about his performance, but there it is.) As his demonic tormentor, Hurley looks fine in her endlessly provocative wardrobe, but she doesn’t really act beyond adopting a huffy, brittle pose which she maintains throughout. (Cook was his usual arch, snooty self, and with his lanky frame he probably would have looked hysterical in Hurley’s outfits.) Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein and Toby Huss have a good time doing a series of caricatures as three of Elliot’s office-mates who take on various roles in his assorted wish-fulfillment fantasies; but their appearances are the sort of stuff one’s likely to see on “MAD TV” nowadays. O’Connor makes little impression as the girl of the hero’s dreams; and when she shows up in another guise at the film’s close, she’s positively grating.
The end of “Bedazzled” necessarily follows the expected device of having the devil foiled in the style of “Damn Yankees,” and it also fulfills the modern requirement to show the protagonist learning a nice moral from his experience–all of which means that it closes on a squishy, spuriously uplifting note that rather undermines the gleefully lowbrow character of what had transpired earlier. Still, as a whole it should prove reasonably diverting if you approach it with diminished expectations and leave your brain out in the parking lot.