After almost fifteen years of being stuck in development hell, the big-screen version of "Bewitched," based on the 1960s television sitcom, has finally arrived, with director Nora Ephron (2000's "Lucky Numbers
") at the helm and starring Nicole Kidman (2005's "The Interpreter
") and Will Ferrell (2005's "Kicking & Screaming
"). Ephron, whose other credits include 1993's dreamy romance "Sleepless in Seattle" and 1998's "You've Got Mail
," would seem to be a match made in heaven for this comedic adaptation, and for a solid hour or so this is the case. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Ephron and fellow screenwriters Delia Ephron (2005's "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
") and Adam McKay (2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
") have bitten off much more than they can chew, leading the narrative off in a hodgepodge of different directions and not sufficiently paying off any of them.
Instead of simply carrying over the characters of witchy Samantha and steadfast husband Darren for a straight remake, a smart spin has been put on the story by having the film be about the making of a new "Bewitched" TV show, unbeknownst to lead actor Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) that his co-star, naive ingenue Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), is a real-life witch herself. Jack, an actor whose celebrity has begun to sink with a collection of bad film choices, is desperate to get his career back on track. In searching for someone to play witch-wife Samantha without having her overshadow his own role, Jack chooses Isabel, who has never acted before, after catching her wiggle her nose in a bookstore. Isabel is at first overjoyed to be working on the show, but she soon finds that playing a fictional witch on TV and being uncontrollably attracted to the "sweet, unkempt" Jack are not exactly helping her in her mission to do away with her special powers and just be normal.
"Bewitched" aims to be a supernatural comedy, a romance, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a TV show, but it all proves too much for the 98-minute frame it has found itself within and, thus, fails to fully satisfy as any of the above. The material is too soft and nice to convince as a scathing satire of television and actors, and lacks the details necessary to inform or provoke; indeed, there are only two or three scenes of Jack and Isabel actually filming the show, and director Nora Ephron completely fumbles the chance to show what it might be like for witch Isabel to find herself acting for the first time in her life. The closest the film comes to successfully sending up the Hollywood industry is one scene in which vampy Iris Smythson (Shirley MacLaine), playing Samantha's mom Endora, cannot resist reacting to the audience's clapping every time she is supposed to be acting, and another in which Isabel's animated likeness is ridiculously shrouded by poofs of cartoon smoke in the opening credits of the show so as to not steal the spotlight away from Jack. These jokes are on-target and genuinely funny and clever, but there aren't enough of them.
By the final half-hour, "Bewitched" abruptly does away with the inner workings of the show in lieu of a romance between Jack and Isabel, at first with a little help from Isabel's magical doings and then legitimately. The goofy genius that is Will Ferrell is an ideal foil for Nicole Kidman's Isabel, and credit the writing for one thing: whereas most movies like this are dumbed-down by a whole lot of numbskull character actions and contrived misunderstandings that could be cleared up with just a line of dialogue, Isabel is written as an intelligent character who wisely decides to be forthright in revealing her witchy background to Jack. As a couple, Ferrell and Kidman show potential, but don't get ample chance to let their naturally amiable personalities form a detectable romantic connection. It also comes as something of a disappointment that Isabel's powers aren't used more frequently. Sure, Isabel is trying to keep her magic under lock and key, but the film she is in is entitled "Bewitched," after all, and this plot point feels like a cheat to what some audiences are expecting to see.
As the lovable Isabel, a woman searching for a purpose in her life while yearning to be a normal, power-free citizen, Nicole Kidman is effervescent, perhaps more so than usual because she is allowed to laugh and goof around. After so many heavy, serious roles (2001's "The Others
," 2002's "The Hours
," 2003's "Cold Mountain
"), seeing Kidman let loose in a comedy while trying to keep pace with the antics of Will Ferrell is the film's most ingratiating treat. Curiously, this is not her first role playing a witch; she appeared as one in 1998's terrible "Practical Magic
." In comparison, this is certainly a step, if not a leap, up from that cinematic failure.
Kidman and Ferrell fill the screen from beginning to end, leaving little room for a plentiful, but mostly wasted, supporting cast that includes Michael Caine (2005's "Batman Begins
") as Isabel's warlock father; Shirley MacLaine (1996's "The Evening Star") as actress Iris Smythson; Jason Schwartzman (2004's "I Heart Huckabees
") as Jack's agent Ritchie; and adorable Broadway actress Kristin Chenoweth and Heather Burns (2005's "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
") as Isabel's bouncy neighbor Maria Kelly and friendly assistant Nina, respectively.
"Bewitched" features a peppy soundtrack of '80s and '90s tunes peppered between supernatural-centric classics like "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" and The Eagles' "Witchy Woman," and is never once a chore to sit through. At the same time, there is a clunkiness to its different parts, both technically and subjectively, that blocks the proceedings from taking off as they should. Certain plot points and characters are left hanging in the rafters without a payoff, and the love story that moves to the center isn't quite heartfelt enough to get viewers swooning. By the end, and even with over a decade's worth of preparation on the project, "Bewitched" feels unfinished, like a rough cut still awaiting a much-needed polish. Fleetingly amusing? Yes. Full-out magical? Not so much.