What would you do if you could do anything in the world? Who would you be if you could be anyone in the world? These are the fundamental questions posed in Bedazzled, a remake of Stanley Donen’s 1967 comedy of the same name, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And if these seem like shallow questions, well, they are. Despite its roots in the legend of Faust, the sober tale of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, this movie takes a comic look at good and evil, focusing on the ways that temptation works in the twentieth century, and, ultimately, what it has to do with personal happiness or salvation, whichever comes first.
Director, co-writer, and co-producer Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Analyze This) here adapts the original Bedazzled‘s story of Stanley, a hapless short order cook who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for the attentions of his beloved Margaret, a glamorous and unobtainable waitress. While he sticks to this basic premise, Ramis makes the Devil a woman, namely, Elizabeth Hurley, clad in ever-changing bright red and skin-tight outfits. This seductress is based on Raquel Welch’s brief but memorable role as Lust in the original film, which introduced all the seven deadly sins. While a female Satan might be acknowledging that a woman is now credible to audiences as a power player second only to God, it’s also rehashing the old story of woman as sexual temptress and cause of man’s fall from grace. Either way, nothing here is particularly progressive.
Bedazzled begins with the Devil searching the world for her next victim. The camera flies over the earth as if taking spy-satellite photos, clicking in closer and closer, honing in on San Francisco (full of prospects), then roaming quickly over the landscape and through the crowds looking for a potential mark. The search leads to Elliot Richards (Brendon Fraser, who also survived The Mummy and Blast From the Past). She selects him because he is utterly eager to please, lonely, and inept socially basically a desperate guy with nothing to lose.
The Devil offers Elliot “seven utterly fabulous wishes for one piddly little soul,” adding, “Souls are overrated. What has yours done for you lately?” Elliot has no particular attachment to his soul, but still he isn’t ready to part with it. But our Devil has all the powers of twentieth century media at her disposal and she marshals an array of marketing tricks to make her pitch. She produces a wall of TV monitors, on which Elliot sees himself as the star of his own life a Fabio clone with flowing mane and a wholly compliant woman in his arms. This media demo of the possibility that he could consummate his love for his beautiful and unattainable coworker, Allison Gardener (Mansfield Park‘s Frances O’Connor), convinces Elliot to sign on the dotted line. But as soon as he accepts the Devil’s deal, things start going wrong, mostly because this Devil is determined to sabotage Elliot’s desire, and really, to make him regret his decision. Much like the Devil in the 1967 film, she is continually up to mischief, though not particularly interested in evil per se. She makes parking meters expire, causes traffic lights to fail (causing a spectacular multi-car pile-up), and dispenses Tic-Tacs to hospital patients. When Elliot objects to this last prank, she argues, charmingly, “Sick people have notoriously bad breath. I’m performing a public service here.”
The fact that all of his hopes and dreams are pinned on winning Allison supplies the film’s most provocative gender twist a man refashioning himself to please a woman. For his first wish, he wants to be rich, powerful, and married to Allison, so the Devil makes him a swarthy Colombian drug lord, not exactly the sort of thing Elliot is good at. Next, he wishes to be an emotionally sensitive man, but, pale and timid, he finds it is harder than he thought to figure out what Allison wants. In reaction he asks to be powerful and athletic, so he becomes “Elliot the Almighty” (a.k.a. the “Double Vanilla Funk”), an awesome basketball player. And on he goes trying to wish himself to perfection. This time when he meets Allison, the camera accentuates his height by looking over his shoulder down at her. His new physical prowess is not equaled by intelligence, however, and the comedy in this round is based on his dumb-jockness.
Elliot’s radical transformations are a marked contrast to Stanley’s, whose wishes brought on more subtle changes his in life but not his appearance. The tones of the two films are also quite different. The earlier version is set against quaint English town-and-country backdrops, and the emphasis is on dialogue. The pace is relaxed and Cook’s Devil strolls and bikes around the hills and dales, taking his time getting about. The remade Bedazzled is marked by speed and action. Hurley races about in a hot black Lamborghini Diablo. She even hurries along Elliot’s selections “Darling, I have an earthquake in Chile in eight minutes. Any chances of making a wish here?” Elliot’s is always in a hurry. His various adventures have him racing through the jungle in an SUV, hanging off a helicopter, hurtling through the air without a parachute, flying through the air like Michael Jordan to make a slam-dunk. Plus, he is repeatedly eager to end his wishes (with a pager Satan gives him for such occasions), sometimes because it is the only way to save his life, sometimes because he’s distressed at how things are turning out.
But poor Elliot never has a chance to see what life might be like if he enjoyed the characteristics he craves power, wealth, beauty, or potency. The Devil always stacks the cards against him and introduces a bit of hell into each possibility. The point may be that hell is on earth or within individuals who crave superficial prizes, but each time Elliot takes on the external attributes of his new self, he is never given an “internal” realignment. Sometimes this is comical, as when he’s in drug-lord mode and tells his astonished crew that peddling dope is “Wrong!” But it also can be troubling, as when his wish to be witty and intelligent leads to a life as a gay, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Elliot is horrified to find he’s gay and unable to respond to a willing Allison, and ends that wish with celerity. So his sense of self is unchanged, despite the changes in his abilities and appearance. He remains self-centered unwilling and unable to explore the possibilities that each of his new selves offers.
Thus the film’s humor is based on Elliot’s ongoing shallowness and emotional immaturity. The film’s obvious lesson is that the things we think will make us attractive don’t and mere wishful thinking won’t transform us into desirable people. But Bedazzled has a hard time driving that point home because Elliot’s inevitable redemption suffers from the same speediness and lack of depth he has brought to each of his wishes. Without a last-minute visit from a wise angel in the form of a prison cell mate, dim-witted Elliot wouldn’t have figured out a thing. Because of this intervention, however, he tells the Devil that he now realizes that changes in his life won’t come “by magic.” Equating the Devil’s deceptions with magic completely sidesteps the issue of evil, faith, or inner strength. But maybe it isn’t fair to ask a shallow, action-pumped comedy to address such issues. If that’s the case, Bedazzled does just fine: its laughs are frequent and soulless.