Bewitched: Nora Ephron’s Misfire, Starring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman

Charmless and witless, Nora Ephron’s “Bewitched” is one of the most disappointing romantic comedies to be seen in quite some time. That the source material is one of TV’s most memorable and beloved shows makes things worse, since comparisons will be inevitable between the two versions.

Even by standards of Ephron’s work, which are not very high to begin with, this is a misfire, a wannabe romantic comedy that pretends to be a fresh reimagining of the 1960s concept, while it’s actually based on a tiresome conceit: The making of a movie about the show “Bewitched.”

 

Will Ferrell, who’s usually reliable even in silly comedies, can’t find the center of his role, and may be miscast as the arrogant but insecure actor. The lack of chemistry between Ferrell and leading lady Nicole Kidman, who at least looks right and can twitch her nose, undermines the very foundation of the romantic comedy. In this film, you don’t root for the couple to stay together because they don’t belong together.

Out in California’s San Fernando Valley, Isabel (Kidman) is trying to reinvent herself by moving into a new neighborhood and a new house. A good-natured witch, she is determined to disavow her supernatural powers and lead a “normal” life. At the same time, across town, Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) a tall, charming actor is trying to get his career back on track, after getting bad scores for his latest outing. To achieve that goal, Jack sets his sights on an updated version of the beloved 1960s sit-comedy “Bewitched,” reconceived as a starring vehicle for himself in the role of the mere-mortal Darrin.

Fate steps in, when Jack accidentally runs into Isabel, and is immediately attracted to her and her nose, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the nose of Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Samantha in the original TV version. He becomes convinced that Isabel could play the witch Samantha in his new series. For her part, Isabel is taken with Jack, seeing him as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead a normal life. Both Jack and Isabel are right, but in ways neither of them ever imagined.

Perceiving the movie as a love story between the most otherworldly of women and the most earthly of men, Ephron must have gotten excited by the casting, for she relies too much on the presence of her stars. This retooling of “Bewitched” is based on a single, simple idea. A modern witch, who’s cast in a remake of the TV show purely on the grounds of her physical resemblance to Elizabeth Montgomery and would be no competition for the selfish Jack, because he doesn’t really want an equal relationship with an actress.

Ephron, who is responsible for some commercial romantic comedies, including “When Harry Met Sally,” which she wrote, and “Sleepless In Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” which she co-wrote and directed, is also the director who’s given us the unfunny “Mixed Nuts” and the inept “Michael,” that also relies completely on John Travolta’s charm. “Bewitched” may be Ephron most muddled and misbegotten effort, closer to “Mixed Nuts” than “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Ephron’s film fails as homage to the popular TV show and as retooling of the subject to modern audiences. Unable to maintain the romance and comedy of the original series, “Bewitched” lacks a smart modern spirit to please young audiences, and is not good or campy enough to serve as nostalgic retro for older audiences that remember the TV show.

I can understand Ephron’s refusal to slavishly imitate the 1960s style of the TV show, or her wish not to do just a big-screen remake with big movie stars. But what does she offer instead A tired and tiresome formula that tries unsuccessfully to maintain the show’s essence and spirit. Ephron takes out most of the elements and tricks that viewers loved about the series, without replacing them with new or fresh ideas. The banter between Isabel and Jack, both before and after she discovers his manipulative scheme, is routine, and the emotional truths uncovered only skin-deep.

As co-writers, Nora and sister Delia think that the original source holds timeless themes that make the series contemporary, such as notion of a “balance of power between a man and a woman,” to use their words. While TV’s Samantha didn’t have a job and used her powers for domestic purposes (doing the dishes), Isabel is a working girl. Big deal; this is 2005!

There are no excuses for such a lousy script. Reportedly, Kidman was involved with the movie early on, so Ephron had the benefit of tailoring the part specifically for her. The skillful Kidman, who proved her comedic skills a decade ago in “To Die For,” deserves better material than she is given here, or for that matter, in last year’s disappointing comedy, “The Stepford Wives.”

Isabel is meant to be girlish, soft, and vulnerable, qualities that are not immediately associated with Kidman’s screen image. Hence, playing a naturally elegant and special woman, who’s striving to be the prototypical girl-next-door, while being undermined by those she trusts and by her own special powers, could have been deliciously comic, but not in this movie.

Endowed with statuesque beauty that gives her “witchy” exterior, Kidman not only looks like Montgomery but also shares the latter’s rare talent of adorably twitching her nose.
The role of Isabel offers a distinct change of pace from her darker and edgier screen characters, her Oscar-winning turn as the suicidal Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” the doomed courtesan Satine in the musical “Moulin Rouge,” and more recently “Birth” and “Dogville.”

On paper, playing a self-absorbed actor also represents a point of departure for Ferrell, better known for his broad comedy on “Saturday Night Live” and in such movies as “Old School” and “Elf.” It may be premature to declare that Ferrell is not a natural romantic leading man, but in this movie he is more irritating than endearing. A famous improviser who revels in serendipity, Ferrell is known for his zany improvisations as well as his exceptional ability to mine situations for humor, but his approach doesn’t fit Ephron’s style, whatever that may be.

Michael Caine, as Isabel’s debonair if disapproving father, Nigel Bigelow, and Shirley MacLaine, who plays the indomitable diva Iris, the actress who portrays Endora on the new “Bewitched” TV series, also fail to cast their spell on the movie.

Caine claims he’s flattered that the Effron sisters had written the part for him, and he revels in the fact that “Bewitched” is the first movie in a long career in which he is surrounded by women. But to what effect In moments, watching Caine as Nigel establishes a connection with his more indelible portrayal in “Alfie.” A warlock, he’s keeping an eye on Isabel like a father in real-life would do, but being an old rou himself, he’s doubly careful about Isabel because he knows what rous are like. Caine interprets Nigel as a grown-up, more sophisticated Alfie, particularly in the courtship scenes with Endora.

MacLaine also suffers from offscreen associations. Renowned for her interest in the nature of reality and reincarnation, and for her exploration of the temporal and mystical realms, she connects to Endora’s magical and imperious qualities. There’s some fun to be had in the scenes of Endora and Jack, since both are self-absorbed and hate relinquishing, or even sharing, the spotlight. The back-and-forth brings some humor to the TV-show-within-the-movie scenes as the two desperately jostle for the adulation of the TV audience. But, alas, unlike Caine, who’s restrained, MacLain overdoes the broad and wacky stuff.

Other members of the cast includes Jason Schwartzman as Jack’s unctuous manager, Kristin Chenoweth and Heather Burns as Isabel’s new mortal friends, David Alan Grier as the frustrated director of the new “Bewitched” TV show, Stephen Colbert and Jim Turner as the harried TV show writers, and best of all, Steve Carell and Carole Shelley as the beloved “Bewitched” mainstays, Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara.

Ephron keeps her ensemble in a limbo: The tale is neither realistic enough to convey a movie set, nor magical enough to function as a fairy tale. Ephron may have a great nose for casting, but poor ear for funny dialogue, and even poorer eye for evoking magic in a movie that screams for a more imaginative touch than the flat and dreary that it gets.