You’ve got magic
Director Nora Ephron’s movie Bewitched, which she co-wrote with her sister Delia based on the old TV sitcom, is pleasant, easygoing, often charming and occasionally very funny.
But consider, just for a moment, the movie’s pedigree. Nora can claim credit for writing or directing (or both) Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail and My Blue Heaven, among others. And Delia co-wrote the recent The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The Ephron sisters can point to a solid record of professionalism and literate wit.
And look at that cast: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Schwartzman. Plenty of Oscar winners, box-office clout, Broadway glamour and indie-flick cred there. With all that going for it, it’s hard to dismiss a nagging feeling that, as pleasant as Bewitched is, it somehow should have been better.
But we should look on the bright side: Think how bad it could have been. I said Bewitched was based on the “old” sitcom because I just can’t bring myself to call the original show a “classic.” The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld—those were classics. But Bewitched?
Not that I had anything against the show, mind you. But I never understood how it lasted eight whole seasons when, as far as I could tell, every episode was exactly like the last. Darrin has a big project at work. Somebody in Samantha’s family—her mother Endora, Uncle Whatshisname or Aunt Whosis—magically messes it all up. Samantha reluctantly breaks a promise to Darrin and uses her own magic to set things right. Next door, Mrs. Kravitz looks on, popeyed and sputtering.
Maybe I missed some subtle nuances between 1964 and 1972, but that’s how the show always looked to me. When the big-screen project was announced, I wondered how they were going to stretch things out to 105 minutes when the original show could only do the same half-hour over and over again 254 times.
The Ephron sisters cleared that hurdle nicely. The movie doesn’t recreate the original series. It’s a movie about a TV reincarnation of the original series, with Jack Wyatt (Ferrell), a fat-headed movie star whose career is on the skids, playing Darrin. To make sure he remains the center of attention, Jack insists on casting an unknown as Samantha, and he settles on Isabel Bigelow (Kidman) because she can do that cute little nose wiggle that was Samantha’s trademark. She’s not really an actress, Jack figures; she’ll be a pushover. He can ride roughshod over her, and she’ll never know what hit her.
Isabel may be naive about the cutthroat ways of Hollywood, but what Jack doesn’t know is that she really is a witch. Like Samantha, she’s sworn off magic for good—at least, that’s what she told her debonair father, Nigel Bigelow (Caine). But Jack’s treachery—especially when Isabel was beginning to fall for him—pushes her too far, and before long it’s actually Jack who doesn’t know what hit him.
Beyond that nifty setup, Nora and Delia don’t seem to have done much to develop their idea. Bewitched has quite a few amusing moments, and one sustained, very funny scene when Isabel unleashes her magic on Jack during a taping, but they’re stand-alone gags; they don’t build on each other, and the movie has a disarming but unsettling air of amiably going nowhere. A plot thread with Jack’s ex-wife (Katie Finneran) is introduced for one hilarious gag and then dropped. And MacLaine, as the fading diva signed to play Endora, is left idling; there are hints that more was planned for the character, but the hints aren’t followed through, and MacLaine’s comic gifts are wasted.
At least Kidman’s aren’t. She hasn’t played comedy since 1995’s To Die For (The Stepford Wives was a comedy, but she had to play it straight), and she has a terrific flair for it. (How I’d love to see her in Blithe Spirit or Private Lives.) As Isabel, she has a guileless, openhearted good cheer that meshes nicely with both Ferrell’s feverishly conceited Jack and Caine’s staid yet mischievous Nigel.
Best not to dwell on whether Bewitched could or should have been better. Personally, I’m happy—and a little surprised—that it’s as good as it is.