Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman, "The Stepford Wives") has had enough of being a witch and is determined to make it on her own. While she weans herself off spells, Isabel acquires a sweet little bungalow but she needs a job. Meanwhile actor Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell, "Melinda and Melinda," "Kicking & Screaming"), in a bid to resuscitate a flagging career, is looking for an unknown to costar with, but not upstage him in, a beloved television series remake. Jack spies Isabel twitching her nose and courts her to costar in "Bewitched."
Cowriter (with sister Delia)/director Nora Ephron ("Lucky Numbers," "Sleepless in Seattle") may have come up with a promising twist to television movie remake formula, but she can't create the necessary magic to give it life. Dreary dialogue, over-exposure to Ferrell and Kidman's ill-informed direction to channel Marilyn lite make "Bewitched" a bad spell at the movies.
It is most alarming to see the talented Kidman turn up in one bad choice after another ("The Interpreter" excepted, this follows "The Human Stain," "Cold Mountain," "The Stepford Wives" and intriguing failure "Birth"). Red flags go up immediately as Isabel first appears in a blatant ad for Bed Bath and Beyond. Her unconvinced father Nigel (Michael Caine, "Batman Begins") appears and she tells him she wants to have arguments about paint, like the couple she's just seen. One wonders why such a seemingly worldly warlock would have raised such an utter naif as Isabel, though. Kidman plays the character with the sophistication of an eleven year old.
Jack Wyatt, on the other hand, is an egocentric buffoon buttressed by his manager Ritchie (Jason Schwartzman, "Rushmore"). The duo succeed in making Darrin Stephens the central character of the new "Bewitched," but audiences don't much care for Wyatt while Isabel's scores are through the roof. Isabel overhears Jack and Ritchie plotting and quits, but a seemingly contrite Jack is impressed by her dressing down of him and begs her to stay (attesting to weak writing that flip flops Jack's motivations around willy nilly).
Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley, "Jungle 2 Jungle") arrives while Isabel is drowning her sorrows with neighbor Maria Kelly (Kristin Chenowethd) and production assistant Nina (Heather Burns, "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous") and soon the four are dancing beneath the moon concocting a powerful spell, but like all of Clara's spells it is overdone - Jack is now besotted with Isabel, insisting she always be front and center. "Bewitched" becomes a huge success, but Isabel realizes she must reverse the spell and tell Jack the truth.
In addition to Kidman's misguided performance (she can wiggle her nose, although not as stylishly as Montgomery could), we get Ferrell in the earnest mode of "Elf" without any of the charm. His one standout 'bit,' a series of ridiculous line readings courtesy of Isabel's ear-tugging (the Bigelows' real life version of Samantha's nose twitching), is simply a retread of costar Steve Carell's more inspired "Bruce Almighty" bewitching. Shirley MacLaine, so obvious a casting choice for Endora it is yawn-inducing, surprises by actually injecting some much needed humor into the proceedings as Iris Smythson, an actress who frustrates the show's producers by acknowledging the live television audience. Caine is droll, but hardly noteworthy - his best scenes are more attributable to the visual effects that turn him into the Gorton's fisherman and Jolly Green Giant while Isabel shops for groceries or that show him exiting a back drop before it's rolled away. Chenoweth is amusing as Isabel's over-enthusiastic neighbor, but her character essentially disappears after dancing in the moonlight with Aunt Clara and company. Carrell ("Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy") does quite a good imitation of Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, as do Amy Sedaris (TV's "Strangers with Candy," "Elf") and Richard Kind (TV's "Spin City") in late cameos as the Stephens' neighbors Gladys and Abner Kravitz.
The Ephron sisters seem to have invested more energy into placing products in their script than giving their characters anything interesting to say (when Isabel puts her foot down, she announces 'I'm quitting tomorrow and I'll do something instead like sailing or polishing fruit,' perhaps the year's most god-awful line). A subplot involving Nigel's romancing of Iris and a montage of Wyatt's past films are wasted comic opportunities. The drawbacks of indulging oneself in anything, be it via witchcraft or great wealth, are not explored. Any Hollywood in-jokes couldn't be less biting.
Production Design by Neil Spisak ("Spider-Man 2") paints everything with store front perfection. Director Ephron begins her film with the exotic sounding 'City of Love' by Persephone's Bees, then goes with a soundtrack of witchy selections ("Witchcraft," 'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,' 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'). Simple effects, like a bag of Newman's Own microwave popcorn popping itself, are more effective than more elaborate ones - Isabel taking flight on a broom just looks weird, at least from the little we're allowed to see of it.
Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) is a witch who just wants to be a normal young woman doing normal things, like falling in love. Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is an actor whose last film lost nearly $140 million and he desperately wants to get his career back on track by reprising a venerable old TV series. When the two meet by chance, Jack sees that the pretty Isabel may just be the hook to bring him back into the popular limelight. What he doesn’t know is that he is about to be “Bewitched.”
In 1964, Elizabeth Montgomery launched into television stardom as the beguiling and likable Samantha Stephens. The series, “Bewitched,” ran until 1972 for an incredible 254 episodes and solidified its place in the pantheon of TV legends. One can see why that warm-hearted, often funny show, that used trick photography in place of magic, would garner interest for a big screen production. Director and co-writer Nora Ephron (with sister Delia) was selected to reprise the venerable TV comedy and reinvent the story of a witch who wants to be a human.
Isabel made the decision to forego her magical powers and buys a house in California’s San Fernando Valley, fully planning to be a normal, average person. Jack is trying to overcome the stigma of his megaflop movie, Last Year in Katmandu,” and decides to throw his hat in the ring to remake of the old romantic comedy TV series, “Betwitched.” He spots Isabel as she twitches her nose and realizes that he has found his new costar but one who will not steal his thunder and allow the conceited actor to be center stage once again. What he doesn’t know is that Isabel really is a witch and the comedy of errors begins.
This all sounds like fun as the story uses the TV remake as the backdrop for the show within a show. Jack, the megalomaniac star, sees his latest project as the means to get back on top. He is smitten with pretty Isabel and her nose twitching ability but has plans to keep his new costar in the background while he hogs the camera for himself. He stupidly and publicly (of course) proclaims his intentions to his manager, Ritchie (Jason Schwartzman), unaware that Isabel has overheard him.
Angered and upset by this turn of events, Isabel commiserates with her neighbor, Maria (Kristin Chenoweth), and the show’s production assistant, Nina (Heather Burns). Isabel’s doddering doorknob-collecting Aunt Clara (Carole Shelly) joins the trio and, before Isabel can stop her, casts a spell on Wyatt. Jack, under the influence of magic, falls hard for the pretty young witch, losing his egotism along the way. But, Isabel doesn’t want magic to help her find love she wants it to happen the old-fashioned, human way.
This premise is a cute one and may have been an interesting respinning for a new “Bewitched” TV series. Norah Ephron made her mark in the film industry with her clever script (well-directed by Rob Reiner) for “When Harry Met Sally….” On the strength of that story, she was given the chance to write and direct such schmarm as “Sleepless in Seattle” and You’ve Got Mail.” But, to me, she has never been more than a hack filmmaker whose work appeals to only the sentimental types out there. Her handling of both writing and directing roles for “Bewitched” reinforces this opinion.
Ephron (or, should I say Ephrons) is not the only problem that I have with “Bewitched.” The other problem is Nicole Kidman as Isabel. The near-40 year old actress is thoroughly miscast in a role, as played by Kidman, that should have gone to a much younger actress. When we meet Isabel, she is resolved to eschew her powerful magic and live a normal, human existence. The character, though, acts more like an immature 18-year old than a witch who may have been around since the days of the Salem witch-hunts. This may be the fault of the director but, with Kidman’s lousy acting choices over the past few years (with the exception of “The Interpreter” where she plays second banana to the United Nations), I also blame the actress. Instead of a whimsical, mature performance, we get an almost childish rendition by Kidman. This detracts and distracts from what could have been.
Will Ferrell tries his best with his outrageous physical comedy ability to create an egotistical Jack Wyatt who is changed forever by Isabel. The comedian elicits the most laughs in a mostly mirthless comedy but Ferrell is not able to save a work that is tedious at best. Supporting characters get some laughs, especially Steve Carell who channels a funny impersonation of Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, but none can do anything to save the movie. Even Michael Caine, as Isabel’s father, and Shirley MacLaine, as her costar Iris Smythson (playing Samantha’s mother, Endora), try as they might, can only chew scenery when they are on the screen. Their presence helps but, alas, they are not the focus.
Techs are bright and cheery with colorful pastels giving things a vibrant look but this, too, does not help “Bewitched.” It is fun to see some excerpts from the old TV show, though. I do have to give the filmmakers credit, in a sleazy, commercial, money-grubbing way, for some of the cleverest product placement I have ever seen where Nigel (Caine) appears as various icons (the Green Giant, Newman’s Own) in a blatant but funny manner.
I suggest checking out the TV Land channel to see if you can find reruns of the “Bewitched” series and enjoy the simple fun of that show. It’s a heck of a lot better and much more entertaining than this new reinvention,” which I give a C-.
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