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What Fresh Hell Is This?

The devil is a woman in Harold Ramis' 'Bedazzled,' which he concedes is a far cry from the original

October 15, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Sunday Calendar

The Devil is sitting in her office doing needlepoint.

"It's a glasses case for my mum," she explains, showing off the floral design-in-progress from behind an impressive teak desk. "Isn't it sweet?"

As she does, her current mark sits across from her, studiously underlining passages in something he's reading with the very fountain pen with which in a few minutes he will sign away his soul.

The Lord--uh, Lady--of Darkness in this is Elizabeth Hurley, and the serious young man is Brendan Fraser, and what he's reading are pages from a script. They're taking a break on a Fox Studios sound stage set of "Bedazzled," Harold Ramis' remake of the 1967 absurdist twist on both Faust and the seven deadly sins, originally starring and written by Dudley Moore (as a forlorn burger flipper) and Peter Cook (a foppishly mod Devil) and directed by Stanley Donen (a long way from "Singin' in the Rain").

The scene they're shooting here is early in the story, with Fraser as Elliot, a lonely klutz whose seemingly unfulfillable desire for lovely Alison (Frances O'Connor, acclaimed for her performance in "Mansfield Park") was the nibble on the hook cast up from Hell. Soon, the seven wishes he'll be granted for signing the "standard" contract (about 1,000 pages thick) will take him through a series of misadventures--he'll become a South American drug lord, a 7-foot, 9-inch-tall basketball dynamo, a rock star and so on--each fraught with the dangers of his failure to be specific enough. The Devil, as they say, is in the details.

The details of this set have certainly been attended to. The oval-shaped office is sleek wood-grain and burnished steel. On the walls are a painting of Adam and Eve with the serpent, another from the familiar vision of Hades by Hieronymus Bosch. Two bowls of apples sit out looking mighty, well, tempting. Hurley is in a natty pinstriped pantsuit, while Fraser is nebbishy in a brown sleeveless sweater over a pale blue shirt and tan slacks. And on the desk, next to a cigarette box, is a caddy containing business cards that read, simply, "The Devil."

This is a busy, modern Beelzebub with, in her own words from the script, "places to go, people to condemn to an eternity of fiery torment."

Hard to say if this is your father's Fallen Angel, but it's certainly not that of Dudley Moore and the late Peter Cook. In fact, there's very little resemblance between this movie and its titular precedent.

"I was a big fan of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore," says Ramis, during a break in his trailer, of seeing the original "Bedazzled" in 1969. "To me they were on the cutting edge. Seeing them in that film combined two things for me. I loved British cinema, the Ealing Studios films. So I saw it when it came out and at the time it seemed so smart."

Ramis didn't see it again until two years ago when, coming off "Analyze This," he was asked by longtime associate Trevor Albert if he'd be interested in a "Bedazzled" update written by Larry Gelbart ("Oh God!," "Tootsie," TV's "MASH"). Seeing the film again was a vastly different experience.

"I looked at it and, God, it's really slow," he says. "It's really '60s and very British and not always in what we'd now see as the best sense. But I guess I was stoned enough in 1969 to think leaping nuns were funny. But 30 years later we've seen enough British comedians in nun costumes and drag that the impact of those things diminished."

Still, he saw enough in the raw premise to be attracted to the project, and signed on to direct and to rework the Gelbart script with writing partner Peter Tolan.

He had a distinctly Harold Ramis take on it. He's proud of his work on "Animal House" and "Caddyshack" and "Ghostbusters"--goofy comedies with an edge which, he proudly notes, echo today in some of the work of the Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler.

But, he notes, "Since 'Groundhog Day' I've been on a whole other tack, which someone characterized for me as 'zany redemption comedies,' for which I thought, 'OK, that's good,' And this one is right in there. Frank Capra said a great thing at an AFI tribute. He said it was a tremendous responsibility to speak to an audience for two hours in the dark. I really believe that. To go to this much effort and [spend] this much of someone's money, there should be some worthy purpose to this."

And that, certainly, was in the basic story of "Bedazzled," in which a young man, given the chance for wishes to come true, has to learn what he's really wishing for via a series of comically disastrous attempts.

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