Screenwriter Nora Ephron has a distinctive touch: When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998) all display a common sophisticated, if not neurotic, sense of humor. Woody Allen does something similar, but Ephron beats him at the character-development game, and dithery, double-taking Meg Ryan made these roles shine. A sourpuss could say that her wide-eyed wondering is contrived and overly sweet, but most of us find her pretty hard not to watch. She’s just plain appealing.
#ad#Nicole Kidman, starring in the new Bewitched, is something else entirely. She has an unearthly beauty, no doubt about it, and boy can she wear clothes. But in the opening scenes of Bewitched she attempts to render the trademark Ephron gal–shy, gushing, adorably confused–while hampered by a serious handicap: her eyebrows. Kidman tips her chin down and gazes up under brows that are straight, dark, and suspicious. There’s not a lot that’s warm about Nicole Kidman, and nothing that’s vulnerable. She’s a diligent actress, though, and puts all her talent into rendering a believable character. Ephron has given Isabel Bigelow, a young witch who wants to go “normal,” some excellent introductory lines and situations, and Kidman steps up to the challenge like a pro. She even found a Marilyn Monroe voice in box full of old impressions. But a Meg Ryan-type character, flustered and blurting, is not something that can be produced by diligence and willpower. Kidman’s essential reserve, the little stony wall around her heart, is too evident. What you feel, instead of charm, is hostility.
The first 20minutes or so of this film, then, are only kind-of bad. The setup and many of the lines are good, even though Kidman fits it like a horse in a parlor. But after that the movie gets really bad, and keeps on getting worse until the end.
The premise is that a temperamental actor, Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), wants to salvage his career with a TV show, a remake of Bewitched. As memory serves, that series was about a witch named Samantha. But Wyatt wants to turn it into a show about Darrin, the witch’s husband. He demands that an unknown be cast as Samantha, and when he meets Isabel in a café–not knowing, of course, that she actually is a witch–he decides she’s the one.
If you’re expecting the unexpected after that, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But even if you’re expecting the expected, the usual Nora Ephron creampuff dialogue and characters, you’ll still be disappointed. Forget the plot (easily done), and just look at these two leads. Kidman is working her robot limbs and facial muscles by remote control from deep in the Fortress of Solitude. Will Ferrell, meanwhile, is flinging himself around joylessly, like a middle-aged suburbanite in the second month of a health-club membership. He executes big, splaying acts of physical comedy, even lunges on and off screen in the nude, sweating hard but not having any fun.
Ferrell can be a charmer (see Elf), capitalizing on his bright-eyed boyishness and simplicity. But he can’t find anyone to connect with here. It’s as if he shot all his scenes alone in front of a blue screen, and the movie was digitized in later. Even Jason Schwartzman, the thoughtful comic actor from Rushmore and I [Heart] Huckabees, though he is at Ferrell’s elbow constantly portraying his agent, Richie, nevertheless looks abandoned and delivers his lines lamely. Only Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine appear to be enjoying themselves, in a separate little movie of their own.
There’s something hostile about this whole production. Like so many contemporary films, it’s the product of exacting calculation. You have to start with a failsafe old idea–a superhero, a classic TV show, an old movie, or Broadway production–because new ideas are unknown quantities, and that makes them too risky. The idea has gotta be broad, explainable in a single sentence, because you need to attract young teens whose appetite for subtlety is not large. Since a film has to make a desperate splash in its first 48 hours and can’t wait to build a following, you need big names up front, whether they’re appropriate for the production or not. Unfortunately, their big salaries crank up the tension further. It becomes even more urgent that every single detail be adjusted to pander to this imaginary and presumably stupid moviegoer, who might for some inexplicable, selfish reason decide to spend his dollars on Zombie Surfer Babes instead. By the time a movie actually opens, you can feel the resentment of every single person connected with it. That’s more true, of course, with some productions than others, but it’s palpable here. There’s something magical about a really enjoyable and satisfying movie, but Bewitched is left holding the broom.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.