“The truth is,” says Nora Ephron as she begins her commentary for her movie of Bewitched, is that Elizabeth Montgomery was “great on this show. She was in some way genuinely irreplaceable. And one of the reasons I was so grateful that we didn’t do a straight remake of the television show is that, as fantastic as Nicole is, these straight remakes just feel like imitations and replications, rather than reinventions. And what we were really trying to do was reinvent this show and pay an homage to it, and have the fun of its historical presence in the world today, rather than pretend that it had never happened, and that most of American women didn’t grow up thinking, ‘Oh if only I could wiggle my nose, things would be perfect.'”
Ephron talks like that, in italics, so you’re sure to get what’s important. That is, most everything. People look at Bewitched, the tv show, she goes on, “in a very Rorschach-y way, you know, it really tells who you are. I have a friend who thinks it’s about mixed marriages. I don’t think it’s about mixed marriages, but she does.” Ephron thinks it’s about a woman figuring “how powerful can you be in a relationship with a man, and not lose his love: it’s something that women always struggle with.”
You’re liking Ephron here, even as she draws out the obvious. She’s earnest and smart and sure of herself. And she knows how to write dialogue, that much is clear, even in a movie as thin as Bewitched ends up being. And what she says seems right — about Kidman (“She has done a huge amount of comedy, but she has enormous lightness as a human being. She’s a charming, light, dear darling as a human being”) and Will Ferrell (“I knew that he had the thing you wanted, which is that he could be a real jerk, and you still think, ‘What a sweet guy, what a nice guy, and so funny”).
Ephron doesn’t have so much to say about the many ideological nuances of Bewitched or the difficulties of comedy (it involves a lot of improve, she observes, “That’s what you do is improvise and hope that you get a funny line or two to add to it”). But she is enthusiastic about recalling her day-by-day experience on the set, and her affection for her stars (especially Kidman, who is, after all, magnificent and dear and darling). And Ephron’s comments are quite a bit more entertaining than the very regular other DVD extras (the pop-up “Witch Vision Trivia Track,” deleted scenes, “Casting a Spell: Making Bewitched,” “Bewitched: Star Shots” [the actors extol one another’s virtues], and “Why I Loved Bewitched” [cast and crew extol the tv show’s virtues]). She knows what she’s doing, and assumes you’ll keep up.
Like the tv show, the movie is premised on a witch, here named Isabel (Kidman), who wants to be “normal.” She announces as much to her father Nigel (Michael Caine, of whom Ephron says: “I just thought, I hope we can get Michael Caine, because he’s such an obvious choice for Nicole’s father”), and he responds appropriately: the idea is daft. Not only is she perfect the way she is, but she has also — apparently — lived her entire life quite outside of anything that might resemble normalcy. Isabel’s a witch, always able to have anything she wanted with just a little tweak of her ear.
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 (Ferrell) and suddenly, nothing is so delightful as it was.
For one thing, like other Ferrell movies, this one ties too hard, such that his spastic over-achieving becomes the dominant energy. Jack is a fading movie star looking to resuscitate his career with a sensational stint on the small screen. To this end, his agent (Jason Schwartzman) pushes Jack to insist on a percs for the shoot and — most importantly — a no-name costar (“Get in there and be the sheriff of ballsville,” he urges his client, “Bring it!”).
He finds the necessarily unknown Isabel twitching her nose in an undusty bookstore. She’s ideal, think Jack and his sycophantic crew (including David Alan Grier), because she’s so naïve 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 shallow and cranky and runs through a bizarre (spell-caused) Shakespearean speech about a dog: “You shall lick my face and I shall lick your snout!” at which point Ephron observes, “It was one of those days when you think, ‘Is there anything more fun than making a movie under these circumstances?’ And the answer is, no”). 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. 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 usual Ferrellian fashion, Isabel’s insistence that he is the perfect mate for her go-normal plan never makes sense. She agrees to everything he asks, perhaps first attributable to her lack of experience with human males. But it has more to do with the film’s built-in problem, that is, its investment in the 1964 tv show. Samantha in the kitchen trying 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, “Now everyone knows who Kristen Chenowith is”)) — all broad caricatures who make it seem that nothing has changed since the ’60s. (Ephron notes that he girls jumping up and down and squealing is “an homage to my friend Rita Wilson”).
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 is a considerable bright spot. Though she is unhingedly breathy at film’s start, as Innocent Isabel, by the middle, the character is frustrated enough that the sweet girlishness is laced with a thread of bitterness and her passivity becomes aggressive. Kidman’s comedy is precise and airy in extreme contrast to the shenanigans unfurled by Ferrell, Maclaine, Schwartzman, and nearly everyone else on screen. This makes her seem, at times, quite magical.