A sitcom on the verge of a full-blown nervous breakdown: that's Nora Ephron's version of the 1960s TV show Bewitched. It's not just a remake. It's a remake about the making of a remake. The willowy comedy at the core can't support this pseudo-complex construction.
Will Ferrell plays Jack Wyatt, a star who hopes to recover from a string of big-screen flops by playing the male lead, Darrin (the Dick York/ Dick Sargent role), in a new Bewitched series. Nicole Kidman plays Isabel Bigelow, a nonprofessional who lands the part of Darrin's beautiful witch spouse, Samantha, because she won't threaten Wyatt's star status and she twitches her nose just the way Elizabeth Montgomery did.
From the start, we know what Wyatt doesn't: Bigelow is a real witch. The movie's conceit is that the TV series hit on the truth about witches and warlocks walking among us.
If that doesn't sound twisty enough, Wyatt and Bigelow are rootless, disconnected characters. Wyatt floats through life in his own narcissistic ether. Bigelow has decided to turn her back on witchcraft just when Wyatt drags her back into it.
A horde of voguish yet undeniably funny men and women surround this fated pair, including Kristin Chenoweth (of Broadway and The West Wing) and Stephen Colbert (of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show). Unhappily, they have nothing to do but vogue in the Madonna sense - strike would-be comical poses. (Steve Carell, of The Daily Show and The Office and last year's Will Ferrell hit Anchorman, does have something to do, but it's so overblown you wish he didn't.)
Add in Michael Caine as Isabel's debonair warlock father, Nigel, who develops a yen for Shirley MacLaine as the shameless diva Iris, who plays Endora on the TV series, and your head spins like the little girl's in The Exorcist. Nora and Delia Ephron, who co-wrote the script, must have kept trying to top each other's comical notions without reckoning how they would play out.
Forget chemistry: There's no biology to the star casting. It's nice to see a film that focuses on an actress' twitching nose instead of her twitching derriere, but Kidman is so ethereal here that she almost makes herself fleshless. She'd have been perfect as a fairy princess in Shirley Temple's Storybook Theatre.
Ferrell merely swings between out-of-control anxiety and euphoria; there's no artistry to his antics. And there's no internal logic to Bigelow's ups and downs with Wyatt. It's potentially uproarious that Bigelow, fed up with what she's gotten from relationships with warlocks - gratification (mostly theirs) without commitment - would be drawn to Wyatt because he's one giant mess of masculine neediness for her to clean up. That's why Bigelow (at first) loves playing second banana to Wyatt on TV.
Too bad the movie's confusions continually undercut its comedy. An example: I'm never quite sure what kind of movie star Wyatt is meant to be. The snippet we see of his last bomb, Last Year in Katmandu, summons memories of that failed 1985 Chevy Chase-Dan Aykroyd action comedy Spies Like Us. Elsewhere he's portrayed as a mainstream leading man, which leaves you wondering why a Harrison Ford type would be a natural choice to win laughs with pratfalls in a sitcom. When the TV studio audience goes into fits of hilarity over his unfunny stumbling around, is Ephron satirizing slob comedy or duplicating it?
Bewitched illustrates that a moviemaker can't achieve inspired nonsense if he or she stops making sense.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell
Directed by Nora Ephron
Released by Sony, Columbia
Rated PG-13 (language, including sex and drug references, and partial nudity)
Time 102 minutes
SUN SCORE * 1/2 (1 1/2 STARS)