Bewitched (2005)Rated PG-13 for some language, including sex and drug references, and partial nudity.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman, Kristin Chenoweth, Heather Burns, Jim Turner, Stephen Colbert, David Alan Grier, Steve Carell.
LVJeff's Rating: 3/10
Photo ©Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.
Are You a Good Bewitched or a Bad Bewitched?
For at least the past decade, postmodernism seems to be the standout characteristic of pop culture -- and I'm growing rather weary of it. I suspect many other people must be as well. In fact, I partially credit the success of The Lord of the Rings series to a subconscious desire on the part of the audience to return to sincere, unironic storytelling, and I mentioned this in my review of The Return of the King. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, irony, especially as applied to nostalgia, becomes even more tiresome, and coming along just in time to highlight this development is Bewitched.
That the popular '60's television show should be given such treatment is unfortunate. After all, it was a show driven by an idealistic spirit -- the belief in how the strength of a marriage can be bolstered by the honest work that's put into it. Remember, Samantha and Darrin Stephens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery and, for Darrin, first Dick York then Dick Sargent) could choose to live the easy life in the blink of an eye, but they opt instead to have a "normal" life, complete with mundane domestic frustrations. Although it felt a little silly, it contained a winning charm that made its fans honestly believe in love being able to conquer all, in love even being enough to suppress the temptations of magic. A straightforward adaptation for a movie not only would have worked, it would have been welcome in this time when cynicism acts as our knee-jerk defense mechanism against life's misfortunes.
Thus, the more I heard about what director Nora Ephron and company were planning to do with a Bewitched movie, the more I wanted to sob. The news that the "adaptation" was now going to be about people remaking the TV show and encountering a real witch literally ruined my day. Bewitched became the worst kind of victim of the current stagnation in movie creativity -- remakes dominate the scene so much, we're now at the point where literal adaptations are starting to feel stale. The solution, apparently, isn't to stop making remakes and trying to come up with original ideas; instead, it's to put "spins" or "twists" on the remakes. That's like trying to put cheese spread on a three-month-old cracker.
I was at least happy, at one time, because Jim Carrey was in line to play Darrin (particularly the York version -- yes, I'm a fan of Darrin #1), but then he dropped out and Will Ferrell signed up instead, thus ruining another one of my days. It's not that Ferrell isn't a capable comedian, it's that his style of humor doesn't fit the character. As it turns out, this didn't become a problem in the way I expected because he doesn't actually play Darrin, you see -- he plays Jack Wyatt, an egotistical, obnoxious, washed-up actor who plays Darrin in the new TV version of Bewitched. But a problem still exists -- Ferrell's outrageous brand of comedy overtakes the movie, moving it further away from the dynamics of the original show. In the show, normalcy was the "straight man" to the outrageous, comedic magic of the witches; here, Ferrell is so exaggerated that he turns his co-stars, particularly Nicole Kidman, who plays the Samantha part, in to the "straight man."
This makes the movie ironic in a way it probably didn't mean to be. Jack Wyatt wants to be Darrin in the new show in order to put himself back in the limelight, but, much to his dismay, the idea backfires because (presumably) smarter viewers realize the show's main star is Samantha, and so they love her more than him. The same thing can apply to the movie itself -- Ferrell dominates its personality to the point where it's really a vehicle for his schtick. It's tiresome and annoying because we, the audience, realize this should be about Samantha.
Sadly, we don't even get to have Samantha; instead, we get Isabel Bigelow, played by Kidman. Isabel/Kidman resembles our beloved Sam, but doesn't act like her -- she's naive and kind of lightheaded while Sam was smart and aware. It's very much a shame, because throughout the movie Kidman displays potential to be a great Samantha. She has the timing and the gestures down (not to mention the famous nose twitch). In one particularly effective scene, she angrily returns to the shooting lot, zapping giant fans, opening doors, and generally flailing her witchcraft about in a way that seemed to be channelling Montgomery. How nice would it have been to actually have Kidman play Samantha? We'll never know.
So the movie is an over-gimmicked romantic comedy that uses the original show as an extraneous element. One wonders why it even had to be related to Bewitched since the references are haphazard and imbalanced. There's a real Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley) and an imaginary Uncle Arthur (Steve Carell) -- yeah, you figure that out -- both who act similar to the show's versions. There's no Larry Tate; instead, the bosses here are corny Hollywood-types whose presence lampoons the entertainment industry (ho hum). Meanwhile, the three main characters don't have a trace of themselves -- Samantha and Darrin only show up via clips of the show (a bad move, since it reminds us how good the show was and how much we'd rather be watching it instead of this movie), and Endora may be visually represented by Shirley MacLaine, but her dominant personality is nowhere to be found (this is another piece of wasted casting, since MacLaine really looks the part and might have been wonderful as Endora).
I'd read before that the moviemakers attempted to write a straightforward version and were dissatisfied until Ephron came up with this overcooked idea. Another pity, since Ephron might've had the right sensibility for the material if she had kept it straight. I'm beginning to think they were too afraid of screwing up a literal adaptation attempt, possibly enraging fans if they got it wrong; this way, they do it different and if it doesn't come out right at least they can't get blamed for messing up the characters. But all that amounts to is getting a failing grade for both the result and the effort, when they could've earned an "A" for effort.
Worst of all, the resulting movie doesn't feel at all like Bewitched. Bewitched was unassuming, charming, maybe a little innocent; this movie is smug, patronizing, and a little infantile. By going this route, the movie shows it doesn't understand the show's tone and isn't interested in exploring the characters. Imagine, instead, if the material was sold with the sincerity it once conveyed -- for our irony-heavy minds, such a movie might have been magic.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 15, 2005