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MOVIE REVIEW

Ill-conceived 'Bewitched' bothers and bewilders

Even by the lowest, loosest standards of silliness, ''Bewitched" is a juvenile movie, made for people who watch their romantic comedies while wearing a bib.

Nicole Kidman plays a witch named Isabel who's grown tired of casting spells and wants instead to live among mortals. Randomly, she is cast in a television update of the old ''Bewitched" television show, where her job is to be the set-up gal for the program's actual star, Jack Wyatt, a washed-up buffoon of an actor played by Will Ferrell.

Jack has hired this unknown, virginal beauty partially because she can wag her nose just as Elizabeth Montgomery did on the original show but mostly because her anonymity and naiveté will make him look good. She doesn't know to be offended that the writers give her no lines.

Eventually, Isabel figures it all out and retaliates by putting a hex on Jack, but she winds up removing it (because, as she keeps telling us, she's through with being a witch). Instead, she tells Jack off and the two fall in a shallow puddle of love.

Whose idea was this?

The credits insist that its writer and director is the usually perceptive Nora Ephron, author of ''When Harry Met Sally" and the darling ''Sleepless in Seattle." But such rudimentary storytelling and moviemaking is on display here that you might mistake the movie for a Children's Television Workshop production, brought to you by the letters h-u-h.

''Bewitched" is conceptually trapped. It panders to fans of the show: An underused Shirley MacLaine looks just like a drag queen doing Agnes Moorehead; Steve Carell makes a fool of himself doing Paul Lynde's prissy Uncle Arthur. That tinkle-tinkle-tink of Samantha's nose wiggle has a bigger role than either of them.

But the movie also wants to be sophisticated, like a project-within-a-project that Charlie Kaufman, the writer of ''Adaptation," might dream up. The Lynde character is not someone on the movie's TV show; he's an adviser who shows up in Jack's off-camera life. Unlike Kaufman's films, there's no wit, structure, imagination, or guiding idea here.

Instead ''Bewitched" presents a phony and cynical look at how Hollywood might make or remake a television show. It's as grating, laughless, and narcissistic (though, to its credit, not as cruel) as that new Lisa Kudrow show-within-a-show-within-a-show, ''The Comeback."

A comeback is what Ephron is aiming for, five years after the Kudrow-John Travolta bomb ''Lucky Numbers." But ''Bewitched" is damp with flop sweat: Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell in love? It makes as much sense as mustard on a doughnut. That they're actually not a disaster together is an extremely lucky accident.

At moments, Ephron and her sister and co-screenwriter, Delia, seem to offer a critique of the entertainment industry and the people in it. But the filmmakers can't decide on a target.

''Being a witch," Jack says to Isabel, ''is like being an actor. You snap your fingers and anything you want materializes." The movie doesn't have nearly enough fun with that analogy.

When the Ephrons do agree on something to send up, it's too easy. MacLaine's character works her magic on Isabel's randy dad (a weary-looking Michael Caine) by turning all the bimbos he meets into . . . bimbos. When ''Bewitched" stops trying to be smart, it pleads for our sympathy, asking us to feel for Isabel's wish to become a real girl. It's a request that would be far easier to embrace were she pursuing her dream in, say, Omaha and not Los Angeles.

That said, Kidman is a pleasure to watch in a part that's quite unlike her others. Her voice is simultaneously whiny with wonder and nothing but air, like Tina Louise on ''Gilligan's Island." The star is breezy but stuck, like a sheet being whipped around on a clothesline. Kristin Chenoweth, the helium-voiced sprite who was Glinda the Good Witch in Broadway's ''Wicked," plays Isabel's bubbly blond neighbor, and she shows Kidman how to enjoy herself while stealing all their scenes.

As fun as Kidman is, there's no getting past the fact that the character is a prim dingbat. After casting a spell to land the perfect bungalow, she makes childlike discoveries (''Hey, I'm turning on the sprinklers in my front lawn!") and sets bizarre personal goals, which sound like a desire to live on the set of a TV show: ''I want to go to the Coffee Bean and talk about the day's events."

That crass cross-promotional reference may not mean much to folks who live east of Burbank, but Ephron has placed other products you're sure to recognize. Isabel doesn't know what a penis is, but she's well aware of Visa, Diet Coke, Volkswagen, and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

This is the galling irony of Ephron's movies: She insists on a sexual chastity between her characters while whoring her movies to one lusty corporation after another. (After all, she named ''You've Got Mail" after the AOL catchphrase.) Should this movie doom Ephron's directing career, perhaps she could find work as a pimp.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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