A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
Isabel Bigelow: Nicole Kidman /
Jack Wyatt: Will Ferrell / Iris Smythson: Shirley MacLaine /
Nigel Bigelow: Michael Caine / Richie: Jason Schwartzman / Maria Kelly: Kristin Chenoweth
/ Uncle Arthur: Steve Carell
I must confess here that I probably have never watched one complete episode of the original BEWITCHED TV show. Sure, I have seen snippets here and there to get a rather vague impression of what the show was about, but I have rarely found much entertainment value from TV, let alone sitcoms (even modern ones seem painfully forced with their laughs). In this respect, I am not an authority on all things BEWITCHED, so my abilities to draw analogies between the TV show and the new film adaptation will be sparse and fragmented at best. Maybe that's for the better.
More than with any other type of film, I approach remakes with a high degree of personal consternation. I especially worry considerably when the suits that occupy the board rooms at the respective big movie studios not only feel the need to remake classic films from the past, but become so bereft of ideas that they turn their eyes to famous TV shows. Now, I seem to have been unapologetically kind to the contemporary remakes of past films (2004’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ALFIE, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE LADYKILLERS, and 2005's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 were are successful remakes in their own respective ways). Others, like 2004’s AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and this year’sTHE LONGEST YARD kind of fell flat on their faces.
However, I think the other flip side to the remake genre are the ones that appropriate TV shows, and I find that these films have the even trickier job to do. They are inherently working with an entertainment medium that does not require a lot from its audience and, more or less, represents the lowest common denominator in terms of artistic worth. Some remakes have been even more intellectually bankrupt than the show that preceded it (see BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and THE FLINTSTONES). Others, like last year’s STARSKY AND HUTCH, knew that the best way to adapt a show was by radically shifting tonal gears. STARSKY AND HUTCH worked almost better as a farcical comedy than as a tough-as-nails street cop show that it was originally in the 70’s.
Now comes the new BEWITCHED, and I approached this TV remake with ever watchful and concerned eyes. It has some definite talent on board (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, the new king of cinematic comedy – Will Ferrell, and writer/director Nora Ephron, who wrote one of the best romantic comedies of all time in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY). So, in these respects, I had huge hopes for the film, and was also equally hopeful that Kidman would learn from and correct her past mistakes in film comedies like THE STEPFORD WIVES, which was a disaster.
First and foremost, BEWITCHED is noteworthy for its distinctive and unique manner of adapting the TV show. Firstly, this film is refreshing because it is not just another dull and lifeless remake of the show, which takes its premise and translates it slavishly to the big screen. No, this BEWITCHED is much more interesting in the sense that it is not about Ferrell and Kidman adopting the famous roles of a mortal husband who takes on a crafty wife who, in reality, is a witch. In the film Ferrell instead plays a sweet, yet narcissistic, actor who was once hugely popular and now is struggling to regain some of his stride. His manager offers him up a solution – play the lead of the husband in a new TV remake of BEWITCHED. Ironically, he also tries to find the perfect Samantha to assume the role made famous by Elizabeth Montgomery. What he does not know is that, ironically, the woman of his dreams to play the role of a witch is actually a witch herself. In this way, BEWITCHED is kind of a remake within a remake, somewhat of a first for the genre if you ask me.
I really liked this approach to dealing with the show, as it becomes a bit more of a multi-faceted remake than most others. Unfortunately, I also think that this approach also one of the reasons for the film’s ultimate undoing. Yes, it is cute, quirky, oftentimes funny, and the leads are appealing, but under Ephron’s usually confident hands the film has a great deal of difficulty trying to balance its numerous tones and themes. Basically, by the time the film ends, we are left with a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces that are not really put together very well. BEWITCHED is a satire of modern Hollywood and witless sitcoms, not to mention a somewhat sly commentary of the cheesiness of the original BEWITCHED. Also, it’s a fairly ordinary and routine romantic comedy with the obligatory elements thrown in. Also, it sort of pays homage to the simple and straight arrow virtues and morality of the original show. Yes, the film BEWITCHED has a nifty setup and has lots of elements for success, it’s just that the execution is a bit off.
Ferrell stars as Jack Wyatt, a movie star whose last film cost $140 million to make, only took in $1.6 million in box office revenues, and did not sell a single DVD. In essence, Wyatt needs something big to rejuvenate his failing career. Like most modern celebs that were once seriously famous on the silver screen, he desperately turns to TV and considers a starring role on the proposed revival of BEWITCHED. He will play the role of Darrin. During the contract negotiations he and his manager (in a kind of wasted comic performance by RUSHMORE’S Jason Schwartzman) play hardball and demand a few things. In this very funny scene, Wyatt demands among other things, three oversized trailers, personal trainers that all wear matching jumpsuits, a Birthday cake every Wednesday, a leopard with a studded collar, and a complete unknown in the role of the witch Samantha, seeing as he does not want a well-known actress to steal the limelight away from him. The producers give him everything, sans the leopard.
The open casting call does not yield much success, but Wyatt has a vision when he meets Isabelle (played by Kidman, who here is plucky, irrepressibly cute, if not a bit overwhelming and obnoxiously ditzy at times) at a bookstore on Sunset. His first gaze on here is at her nose, which manages to be a perfect reproduction of the famous magical nose twitch that made Montgomery known. Isabelle has just recently moved to the big city in search of a new life. She has just picked out a great house, bought a nice VW bug, and wants a man who will care for her more than anything. She’s kind of flakey and oftentimes unrelentingly stupid and naïve, but Wyatt nevertheless sees only her as the role. He literally begs her to play the role, and after a sly and funny audition, everyone agrees that she’s perfect.
There’s one catch. Oh, sweet irony, but the hapless Wyatt and all those around her have no clue that she’s actually a witch. However, Isabelle has made a personal vow not to use her powers anymore in order to carve out a fresh start. Okay, she uses them twice in her new town, once to buy linens, and the other to get lunch when the lunch menu has expired. Her father (played by another wasted comic actor, Michael Caine) insists that she can’t live the life she wants without her powers because it would be too tempting of her to do so.
The film is very cuddly and light-hearted without being overbearingly so. I liked the natural and easy going chemistry that Ferrell and Kidman have here. I appreciated how Ferrell taps into the callous ego that Wyatt has and shows us a man that is gloriously in love with himself (in one hilarious moment, he asks an intern to bring him “200 cappuccinos and out of them give me only the best one!”) There is also another moment on the film that plays effortlessly off of Ferrell’s manic and oftentimes fiery comic energy. In a scene where Isabelle wants to enact some measure of revenge on Wyatt, she uses a spell to alter his voice differently for every take of a scene. He even once does the lines in Spanish. Ferrell is also at his comic-high jinks self during an extended set piece in the film where he has been hexed to give into Isabelle in any way possible. What she was not planning for was the hex causing him to fall madly in love with her and constantly pine for her affection. And then there’s the big reveal where he learns the truth about Isabelle, where he flips out in the only way Ferrell could.
Unfortunately, it takes the film an awfully long time to generate any serious and sustained laughs. The first half hour is a comic deadzone and Ferrell seems to awkwardly work with lackluster material that does not pay off of his comic charm and zany charisma. By the film’s final two acts he, more or less, finds his zone and effectively stays there. Kidman is always fetching in the role, is adorable beyond recognition, and has fun with her scenes with Wyatt, but I was constantly thinking throughout most of the film why she is so ditzy? The film could have generated maybe more laughs is she was a stronger, more liberated, and independent force that has to earn Wyatt’s affection. She is more or less a character right out of a 60’s sitcom, right down to her submissiveness and candor. The film’s satire could have worked even better if she was less of a tart and tried to spruce up and contemporize Samantha for the 21st Century. Throughout most of the film, however attractive and likeable she appears, Isabelle seems witless and inanely immature.
The film is funny, but it fails to generate a series of sustained and genuine laughs that are an absolute prerequisite for successful film comedies. Ferrell and Kidman, to some degree, produce many chuckles and giggles, as does a hilarious cameo by Steve Carrel, but the rest of the cast misfire altogether. Caine sleepwalks through his role and is given nothing substantial to do (his only funny scene occurs in a grocery store, in several guises), and Shirley MacLaine is on full obnoxious autopilot here. David Allen Grier, who is capable of being enormously funny, is completely wasted as the TV director who’s trying to make the show a hit, and one of Isabelle’s friends, played by Kristin Chenoweth, should de-throne the much maligned Jar Jar Binks as the most annoying screen persona of recent memory. She is a cheap character that hits every stride of the blond bimbo stereotype and inspired contempt and animosity towards her where we otherwise would have wanted to warm up to hear and like her. Ephron has been gifted at writing smart female characters, but with Isabelle’s friend she strikes out something fierce.
BEWITCHED has a premise that sets itself inimitably apart from other big screen adaptations of TV shows, and it has its heart in the right place, not to mention that its warm, sort of endearing and sweet. Ferrell, as he demonstrated with last year’s best comedy ANCHORMAN and this year’s funny KICKING AND SCREAMING, is able to make us like and laugh at him even when he’s playing an unmitigated SOB. Kidman is also eye-catching and delightful, if not a bit too clumsy and moronic, and her scenes with Ferrell are whimsical and affectionate.
Yet, BEWITCHED is sort of inconsistently funny and misses a lot of opportunities for big laughs and moments of satire. I was reasonably entertained by the film and found it palatable to some degree, but it failed to generate the same level of intelligence and wit that other better romantic comedies have had. Fans of the old TV show will most likely enjoy it, but for the rest of us that demand a bit more out of its uniformly talented participants, this film remake needed a bit more tinkering and magic to make it an affectionate winner.