In an era where creativity is dead in Hollywood, the studio system is scrambling for used ideas to cannibalize into movies. For awhile now, one of the answers has been to take classic television shows and turn them into feature films. To date these film versions have all been done as irreverent spoofs, rather than as something faithful to shows they’re supposed to be paying homage to. Bewitched is the first of these adaptations to successfully try something different. In doing so, it achieves what none of those other television translations could: It’s really good.
Bewitched works because it isn’t an adaptation of the original television series at all. Rather, veteran romantic comedy director/screenwriter Nora Ephron has taken the concept of the television show and applied it to a completely new story. To honor the original, she’s also worked in plenty of reference to it by placing her story on the set of a “Bewitched” television remake. Ok, maybe that sounds a little gimmicky, and from the trailers even I thought so. Making movies about making movies (or television shows) is one of the lamest and most overused plot devices available. There’s nothing more depressing than a watching Hollywood make more movies about itself. But Ephron doesn’t go there, she keeps the “Bewitched” television set as merely a backdrop, avoiding the temptation to use it as an easy opportunity to take potshots at the studio establishment and instead focusing in on the real story, the relationship between Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) and Isabel Bigalow (Nicole Kidman).
Jack is a movie star whose career is failing. To breathe some new life into his public persona, he pulls a Kiefer Sutherland and agrees to do television; specifically to play Darrin on a remake of “Bewitched”. To make the show more Jack focused, he throws down a list of diva demands that includes three trailers (he settles for one huge one called the “Jackerator”), a diamond collared leopard, and the casting of a complete unknown in the role of Samantha. The show’s weak-kneed producers acquiesce when Jack discovers a perfect nose-wriggling candidate at a local bookstore. Her name is Isabel, and unbeknownst to Jack and his television crew she’s a real witch. What Jack also doesn’t know is that Isabel is falling hopelessly in love with him. For Isabel, Jack is the perfect man: messy, scattered, and unkempt. She loves it when he sweats.
For her part, Isabel is sick of having the world at her fingertips, and wants something normal. She’s ditched the witching world (wherever that is) and moves to California. Her warlock father, played as simultaneously wise and ridiculously cocky by Michael Caine, objects. He appears periodically throughout the film to offer advice and take a stab at talking her in to coming back. To her, hopelessly arrogant, accident prone Jack represents the best and worst of being normal, and when he says he needs her (to be on his television show) those are exactly the words Isabel has been waiting for. She does the show not out of any desire to be a star, but because she simply wants to be needed by someone, in particular Jack. Kidman, not Ferrell is the real centerpiece of this film and does a wonderful job of playing Isabel as a cute, naïve, fish out of water.
Ferrell of course provides most of the laughs, though Kidman does a nice job of getting in her share of the giggles. The film’s funniest moments come when Isabel gets pissed off, and uses her powers to torture Jack. The result is a scene in which Jack is compelled to read all of his lines in Spanish; it’s the sort of gag that a supremely gifted comedic actor like Will Ferrell makes a lot funnier than it actually deserves. Of course truly bad material can’t be saved by great actors. Ferrell’s last film, Kicking and Screaming, proved that quite capably. Here both Ferrell and Kidman are given great tools to work with, and they run away with them.
Bewitched isn’t just funny, it’s classy in the way that only the best romantic comedies manage. Ephron’s unconventional approach to the mundanely conventional process of re-treading old television shows makes this an enchanting blast of fresh air. As always, the key to adapting someone else’s material is capturing the spirit of the thing rather than the specifics. Ephron proves it by making something entirely new out of the old idea behind “Bewitched”, while still throwing in enough nostalgic nods to the original to keep that show’s rapidly aging fans happy. After sitting through Birth and The Stepford Wives, it’s a real relief to see Kidman look like she’s doing something enjoyable. Both she and Ferrell are absolutely on their game here, while Ephron’s great script and sharp editing make Bewitched an undeniably charming winner.