No Deep Down
I just love to blend.
—Uncle Arthur (Steve Carell)
Isabel (Nicole Kidman) thinks she wants to be “normal.” Her announcement to her father Nigel (Michael Caine) strikes him as odd. Not only is she perfect the way she is (not to mention, she’s Nicole Kidman), but she has also—apparently—lived her entire life quite outside of anything that might resemble normalcy. Isabel’s a witch, you see, and so she’s always been able to have anything she wanted with just a little tweak of her ear.
But she’s sure this is what she wants, and so dad stands back to watch, as she settles into a new home in the San Fernando Valley (a home she “purchases” by witchily installing a “for sale” sign, surprising the realtor but getting her way. She conjures up a credit card, sets up her VCR, and arranges all her new furniture, with just a little bit of magic. The set-up is cute, she’s cuter, and Bewitched seems off to a reasonably charming start. Then she meets Jack (Will Ferrell) and suddenly, nothing is so delightful as it was.
For one thing, like most movies starring Ferrell and all movies based on tv series, this one tries too hard. Written by Delia and Nora Ephron and directed by the latter, it begins with a decent concept, kinda meta, kinda self-aware, and according to Ephron, conceived in an evening. Rather than just take the series’ premise off the top, it torques it slightly, with Isabel’s witchness a secret when she’s cast as similarly secret-keeping Samantha in a remake of the series, where her costar is Jack, a fading movie star looking to resuscitate his career with a sensational stint on the small screen. To this end, he and his smarmy agent (Jason Schwartzman) maneuver to cast the unknown Isabel, after he spots her twitching her nose in an undusty bookstore.
She’s perfect, Jack and his sycophantic crew (including David Alan Grier) think, because she’s so naove that she’ll never notice he’s stepping on her lines or stealing them straight up. So intent is she on being normal that she can’t see the utter abnormality of her surroundings. Living amongst actors in artifice-loving L.A., she’s quite in her element, ensconced among performers and liars. As pointed out by Iris (Shirley MacLaine), the zealously eye-shadowed diva cast as Endora, “Actors look normal, but deep down, there is no deep down.”
Jack embraces this principle full-on; he’s as shallow and cranky a star as ever was satirized in a movie. Even as he’s maneuvering to take the spotlight and laughs, worried that playing Darrin, he worries that he’s doomed to be overlooked (“The witch has all the fun!”). And so he resorts to the usual excesses, making star-turny demands on the set (a giant coffee machine on wheels and lackeys everywhere he turns) and letting everyone know how he feels about himself whenever he opens his mouth: “I always look great,” he sniffs, “That’s a given.” With all this self-love, the movie sets Jack up for several falls, chief among them Isabel’s overnight stardom, despite his mighty counter-efforts and her initial passivity. This might have been a plot point worth pursuing—Isabel as celebrity, beloved and reviled by paparazzi and her public, a witch who might serve up some particular vengeance on all—but here the movie takes another, decidedly mundane turn.
As Jack goes overboard in predictably Ferrellian fashion, Isabel’s general willingness to go along and worse, her judgment that he is the perfect mate for her go-normal plan, never make much sense. Her agreement to everything he asks for is first chalked up to her lack of experience with human males (she does suggest that dating warlocks is a chore), but it has more to do wit the film’s built-in problem, that is, its investment in the 1964 tv show. There. Samantha in the kitchen in order to please Darrin was comedy. Now it’s boring. And so, Isabel has to create her own problems, here in the form of a hex she cooks up with her dullsville cast of supporters—her perpetually flustered Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley), cynical assistant Nina (Heather Burns), and too-tanned, squealy neighbor Maria (Kristin Chenoweth)—all broad caricatures who make it seem that nothing has changed since the ‘60s. Yes, just what Samantha and Endora used to do—Darrin with big ears, Darrin as a frog, and now, Darrin as a completely doting lover. Ewww.
The shifting grounds for Isabel and Jack’s romance—as Samantha and Darrin, as sweet young lovers dancing on a stage-set, as competing actors—thus give way to formula. Ferrell and his designated sidekicks (Steve Carell as Uncle Arthur, David Alan Grier as a sycophantic assistant) are only repeating—either parts from the tv series or parts they’ve played before. Without the hex, he is, as Isabel observes, a “giant male reproductive organ”; with it, he’s so gooey as to make her feel guilty and perhaps a little human. Or maybe more specifically, female.
With all the things that go wrong in Bewitched, Kidman offers a considerable bright spot. Though she is unhingedly breathy at film’s start, as the innocent Isabel, by the middle, she’s got her frustrations in sight and begins so scheme a bit, though lacing her sweet girlishness with a thread of bitterness and her passivity with aggression. Kidman again reveals her light, precise comic touch (see also: 1995’s To Die For). Less precise but more resolute, MacLaine’s Iris is as outsized as Agnes Moorehead’s Endora. All grand entrances and gauzy purple sleeves, she doesn’t look dated, but rather, as if she’s still waiting for the rest of us to catch up.