Tuesday, June 28, 2005

REVIEW: Bewitched (2005)

Such an enigma is Nicole Kidman. Born in Australia, yet posessed of what can accurately be called a natural "classically-Hollywood" beauty and effortlessly able to affect a pan-European "cool" native to neither land. Gorgeous enough to coast the length of a career on sex-appeal alone, but instead driven to consistently appear in good, challenging roles in successively better films with relatively few missteps. When the history of this era of filmmaking is written, Kidman will be remembered as one of the most enduringly talented "movie stars" of her time.

So... what the hell is she doing in a Nora Ephron movie?

Ephron, you may be unlucky enough to remember, in 1989 had the great fortune to preside as writer over "When Harry Met Sally," which should have been the LAST word on the modern Romantic Comedy. The unlucky-for-us part is, she wouldn't LET it be the last word and instead kept that most quality-resistent of Hollywood genre films going as a director of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail." Ephron's films as a director seldom, if truly ever, have occasion to rise above the level of extended sitcoms, so in fairness there were probably WORSE choices to direct a feature-length retooling of the TV classic "Bewitched."

The resulting film, on the other hand, is exhibit-A that there could hardly have been a worse choice to write the film than Ephron and her sister Delia, who have delivered just about the most awful, unfocused and unfunnily-written film of the entire Summer so far: The only thing that keeps this from sinking to "Monster In-Law" depths is that the cast is talented enough to salvage what they can from a truly hopeless venture.

Let's be direct about this: The only reason this film even exists is because Nicole Kidman looks similar enough to original series topliner Elizabeth Montgomery to be considered interesting casting. "Bewitched" is one of the enshrined "classic" cultural touchstones of early-60s television, dually revered as a better-than-average sitcom on the surface and as a hallmark of the pop-culture "find the hidden themes" passtime.

The TV premise (all-powerful witch Samantha marries mere-mortal Darrin, agreeing to hold her reality-reshaping powers largely in-check so that he can at least have the illusion of a traditionally in-charge husbandhood) may have been largely knocked-off from the James Stewart/Kim Novak vehicle "Bell, Book & Candle," but the series' 1960s milieu eventually turned it's lead character into a kind of protofeminist icon: the Kennedy-era housewife as omnipotent Earth Goddess in disguise. In one of the most sublimely metatextual moments of my life, this past week a bronze statue of Montgomery-as-Samantha was installed right here in Salem, Massachusetts, where the onetime site of Puritan witch hunts has been "recclaimed" as a kind of American mecca for neo-pagan Witches, many of whom have a certain kitschy fondness in "Bewitched's" rosy image of Witch-as-suburban-everymom.

This new film turns on the "clever" premise that a new version of "Bewitched" is being mounted, and the producers accidentally hire an ACTUAL witch-come-to-Earth to play Samantha. The witch in question, Isabelle Bigelow, (Kidman) is sadly no sharply self-confident Samantha Stevens: Instead, we're faced with a perplexing, strange character I can best describe as Kidman attempting an improv routine of "what if Marilyn Monroe had played Leeloo, the alien/womanchild fetish doll from 'The 5th Element?'" Isabelle is fleeing the suffocation of her "instant gratification" witchcraft lifestyle, as personified by her serial-philanderer father Nigel (Michael Caine, looking perpetually distracted by dreams of what brand of boat he's going to purchase with the money it must have cost to get him onto this set every day.)

Unknown to Isabelle, the show is ACTUALLY a retooled Darrin-centric vision of the story, a career-saving last effort by failed movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell.) When she does learn that her character is to be marginalized and, worse yet, that Jack doesn't respect or like her, she unleashes Samantha-style unholy hell on the set. There's probably a cute comedy in that premise, but the Sisters Ephron throw it out almost immediately in favor of an entirely new plotline: Isabelle is sexually aroused by Wyatt's human hopelessness and attempts a love-connection, first through magic and later through the more human means of calling him out on all his character flaws which, in bad Romantic Comedies, always makes the recipient of the criticism fall head over heels for the critic. No sooner has THAT plotline died-on-arrival than we get yet another, as Wyatt discovers Isabelle's true nature and takes it poorly in a series of breakdown scenes we assume were meant to be funny.

In among all the colliding plots, the film stretches the allowable limits of self-awareness past the breaking point: At least one other character in the film is a Witch in-disguise, and at least two characters from the original TV show pop up in the "real" world of the movie. I think. Aunt Clara shows up around the midpoint, seemingly Isabelle's actual aunt only coincidentally a doppleganger for the Clara of the show. Later, Steve Carrell turns up in a scene-stealing, nearly movie-saving cameo playing Paul Lynde's "Uncle Arthur" character. Arthur suggests that Isabelle's constant mucking with time and space is (I think) causing reality and the TV show to get mixed up, an idea which would probably make a better movie than this one.

They'll be talking about this one for awhile, I think. "Bewitched" is the biggest walking-disaster big star movie to arrive onscreen in some time. I'd advise you to avoid it.

FINAL RATING: 2/10