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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.


The third entry in Shooting Gallery’s fall series of independent films (for more information, log on to movies.yahoo.com/sgfilmseries) is a reasonably competent but hardly revelatory rockumentary about the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, concentrating on their recent U.S. tour. Perhaps the thing most people will find intriguing about the picture is that it’s directed by actor Jason Priestley, who’s done some really fine work in recent years (most notably the superb 1997 “Love and Death on Long Island” with John Hurt); but unhappily his contribution, along with that of editor Al Flett, is the weakest element of the piece.

The subjects themselves are engaging, articulate guys who all seem genuinely likable fellows, and the excerpts from their stage performances are very enjoyable indeed. But Priestley and Flett, except for a few moments, haven’t really found a way to juxtapose the concert footage and interview sequences in a way that shows any particular cinematic energy or imagination. The result is a very standard-issue documentary, with brief musical interludes (much too brief, in fact, during the first hour) interspersed with talking-head shots of conversations and not-terribly-revealing episodes filmed during the group’s journeys (as well as an occasional staged moment, as when Priestley himself enters the scene during a Washington stop). There are, to be sure, occasionally clever sequences–a montage showing fans’ (and some non-fans’) reactions to the band’s music is a nifty idea, and the players’ own concerns about a video-in-progress offer a few intriguingly “inside” observations–but apart from a couple of offhanded remarks, the guys’ offstage lives aren’t touched on much. (The one major exception is the illness of Kevin Hearn, the keyboardist, which happily isn’t treated in too maudlin a fashion but still isn’t as effective a wraparound device as the makers clearly intended.) And, quite honestly, the picture’s repeated emphasis on the fact that the band is Canadian, and the contention that U.S. attitudes toward their northern neighbor are at best conflicted, seems overdone.

In the final analysis “Barenaked in America” isn’t innovative or cinematically interesting enough to rate as a significant documentary, and even the committed will probably be disappointed that it isn’t more revealing (and that it isn’t until the last thirty minutes that we’re treated to extended performance excerpts, which are then done so straightforwardly as to be a trifle flat). But the music is pleasant, the band members amusing, and the film an inoffensive time-waster, especially for the already converted. It probably won’t win over many new fans, though.