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[SEASON OF THE WITCH] | MOVIE REVIEW

A lack of hex appeal

Suburban 'Bewitched' takes Hollywood detour

June 24, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"Bewitched," which was directed by Nora Ephron and co-written with her sister, Delia, isn't a remake, really. It's a "reimagining," which is a sparkly word for what happens to a beloved TV hit of yesteryear when it's cannibalized by committee.

The movie, which spent more than a decade in development, stars Will Ferrell as Jack Wyatt, a fading movie star who takes a job playing Darrin on a TV remake of the original show; and Nicole Kidman as Isabel Bigelow, the unknown, Valley-dwelling nonactress Jack hires to play Samantha. The twist: Isabel is a real-life witch on the hunt for a needy male mortal, which, frankly, beggars credulity. Who's going to buy Nicole Kidman as an unknown nonactress living in the Valley?

Maybe the biggest surprise about "Bewitched" is that it's not as terrible as the buzz that preceded it. Glossy, hard-edged and studded with clever lines, it sort of clubbed me into submission from the outset. The Ephrons mock their cake and eat it too, making fun of Hollywood's remake obsession by making a movie about a TV remake. And they skewer the Hollywood feudal system with a savagery that made my stomach hurt.

Ultimately, "Bewitched" is more interested in flattering your inside-entertainment cynicism than indulging your fond nostalgia for Elizabeth Montgomery. Though in trying to do both, it winks, nods and nudges so relentlessly that at times the movie seems on the verge of a grand mal seizure. Instead, it goes quietly nuts, folding fictional elements from the show into the part of the movie that's supposed to be real (which is as confusing as it sounds) and congealing into a singularly uninvolving romance.

The movie begins with Isabel flying over freeway interchanges, strip malls and a patchwork of emerald lawns and sapphire pools and finally alighting in front of a charming Spanish bungalow that she promptly appropriates and decorates through a series of minor spells. Once settled, she meets her bouncy neighbor Maria (Kristin Chenoweth) and tries to dodge her disapproving dad, Nigel (Michael Caine, who steals every scene he's in).

Nigel seems to pop up whenever Isabel goes shopping -- here he is in the signs at Bed, Bath & Beyond, there he is on the packaged food labels in the supermarket: Look, he's the jolly Green Giant! -- to nag her about her decision to quit whatever parallel netherworld witches are supposed to inhabit. Why he's so bent out of shape about it is unclear. It's not like Isabel has gone and married a neurotic middle manager who won't let her use her powers. It's not even like she decided to switch majors from econ to women's studies. All she's done is move into a shabby chic paradise and hook herself up with free cable.

Beyond that, Isabel has no idea what she's going to do with her life until Jack spots her, or rather spots her nose, through the self-help shelves at a local bookstore. Isabel refuses the job at first, especially after Jack describes celebrity as something very akin to witchcraft. ("You snap your fingers and get whatever you want!") But his "troubled, unkempt" quality wins her over, and in less than a week, as she tells Nigel, Isabel is transformed into "a rich and famous actress living in a house I don't have to pay for, just like any other normal person."

(You have to appreciate a Nora Ephron joke at the general expense of Nora Ephron-inspired movie romantic fantasies in which housing and career miracles of this magnitude don't even involve magic.)

A monstrous, unchecked celebrity id given to fits and tantrums and sudden demands for a leopard. Jack's only reason for wanting to cast Isabel is that she is too unfamiliar with Hollywood culture -- or with culture at all -- to realize she's being used. Egged on by his weaselly agent, Richie (Jason Schwartzman), Jack sweet-talks her into taking the part, then cuts all her lines; and the show's creators (reimagineers?), played by a barely used Stephen Colbert and Jim Turner, are powerless to stop him. Jack's despotic, moronic celebrity trumps all reason.

Eventually, Isabel gets wise to Jack's true nature (she has a crush on him at first, then tosses her vow not to cast spells and starts hexing him relentlessly). What takes her so long -- her powers don't seem to include powers of perception -- is part of the problem with the movie. Kidman gives Isabel a Marilyn Monroe whisper and a kitten-with-a-whip demeanor that's light years behind Samantha's sassy, resourceful and modern (for the times) suburban mom. The little-girl act is needed to justify her crush on Jack, whom Ferrell plays like a 5-year-old throwing a tantrum in a supermarket.

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