Sam I'm Not: Nora Ephron's Bewitched is a weak brew

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
June 23 2005 7:15 PM

Sam I'm Not

Nora Ephron's Bewitched is a weak brew.

No magic here
Click image to expand.
No magic here

Bewitched (Columbia Pictures) is easier to endure than Nora Epron's last few chick-flick comedies. It's characteristically smug and superficial, but at least it's set in an idiot showbiz/Hollywood universe, to which Ephron can feel legitimately superior. And it's not as if the original Bewitched is too magnificent to trifle with (unlike The Shop Around the Corner, which she cannibalized for the torturous You've Got Mail). That said, I'm grading on a curve that dips, at its lowest point, into the abyss.

Ephron and her sister, Delia, who co-wrote the script, try to pass off this new Bewitched as "meta-." It's not the '60s sitcom, exactly; it's about a TV remake of the '60s sitcom. The twist is that Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), the nonactress cast as Samantha—largely because of how adorably she twitches her nose—is (what are the odds!) an actual witch who (what are the odds!) also wants to give up her powers and be a normal human. It's quite amazing how Isabel's life parallels her sitcom counterpart's. She even has a bon vivant warlock dad (Michael Caine) and a daffy screw-up Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley). Life's just a big TV show.

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The other twist is that this TV Bewitched is a comeback vehicle for falling movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), who wants the remake to revolve around Darrin. That's an idiotic notion even for this idiot/showbiz universe, but Ferrell does huffy prima donna petulance as well as anyone, and his attempts to push Samantha—the obvious center of the show—to the periphery are some of the movie's funnier bits. What isn't remotely funny (or credible) is how Isabel falls deeply in love with this self-centered lug while he's laboring so mightily to upstage her. Nicole Kidman makes a lovely dazed ingénue, using a high vocal register to parody gently the doll-like '60s-sitcom housewife. But she's playing Meg Ryan—and even Meg Ryan has moved beyond playing Meg Ryan.

The bigger disappointment is that, despite the modern frame, Ephron hasn't rethought Bewitched for the 21st century. As Camille Paglia (and many others) have spelled out, the late '50s and '60s was the era in which untethered sitcom housewives—Lucy Ricardo, Samantha, Jeannie (the housewife as harem-girl)—threatened to upend the lives and careers of their upwardly mobile middle-class husbands. Being flighty creatures, these women had powers to invoke chaos—powers that neither they nor their spouses could fully control. ("Lucy … you have some 'splainin' to do!") It wouldn't have taken much for the Ephrons to make Isabel more than a wannabe suburban housewife and let her struggle with the sitcom's retro subtext. This isn't a highbrow idea: The Brady Bunch Movie deconstructed its source in a way that made us laugh at the old show and at the same time feel nostalgic for its phony, simple-minded depiction of family life at the height of the counterculture.

The Ephrons win the Lazy Screenwriting Prize for introducing, on cue, a second-banana friend to counsel the heroine on her love life. (It's an instantly chummy neighbor played by Kristin Chenoweth.) They also leave ample room for falling-in-love montages set to familiar pop songs. I liked the snazzy Steve Lawrence vocal of the Bewitched theme, but using R.E.M.'s impassioned "Everybody Hurts"—conceived as a plea for teenagers not to kill themselves * —to underscore shots of Kidman and Ferrell feeling blue about their inability to pair off is an aesthetic crime. The Ephrons should be fined and forced to do a few hundred hours of community service.

Shirley MacLaine's Endora is better repressed, but, as Isabel's father, Caine is a suave, deadpan joy: Is there an actor alive who's as brilliant as finding just the right key for whatever movie in which he's cast? He has the film's best joke, fuming about Isabel taking a part in a remake of show that "is an insult to our way of life!" It would have been even funnier if his "way of life" weren't exactly the same as it's portrayed in the sitcom. Nora Ephron used to mine the tension between romantic fantasy and the real (disappointing) world for honest laughs. But now she has settled happily in big-budget star-studded chick-flick land, where it's all synthetic, all the time.

* Updated Correction: Can't you people read to the end of a column before firing off a correction? I don't like having to change something after it's published, but after the hundredth e-mail... Here's the original correction, which went up last Friday: Thanks to the many (many) R.E.M./Cobain fans who wrote to say that "Everybody Hurts" was written (by Bill Berry) well before Kurt Cobain's suicide. The Cobain-inspired song was, of course, "Let Me In." However, "Everybody Hurts" was intended as a plea to teenagers not to kill themselves (and was sometimes paired in concert with "Let Me In"). Using the song in a sitcom context remains insensitive, to say the least.... 4:15 p.m. PT

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.