Salem’s Flop

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Bewitched stars Nicole Kidman in the TV role that made Elizabeth Montgomery a twitchy-nosed, impishly smiling household name. The new movie, directed by Nora Ephron and co-written with her sister Delia . . .

Oh, let’s just cut to the chase here: What the hell is Will Ferrell doing to his career? After Old School and Elf, it seemed as though he was going to be the new king of film comedy—he’d taken the big-boned, rangy athleticism he’d honed on Saturday Night Live (in, for example, his great cheerleader sketches with Cheri Oteri) and transferred them to the movies with smashing effect. With his Raisinet-size eyes and doughy face, his willingness to shuck his clothes and yell out amiably absurd non sequiturs, Ferrell was something fresh: a wild man with whom you could identify. Unlike Jerry Lewis, a previous generation’s go-for-broke nut, Ferrell kept his ego in check and made himself sympathetic, not tyrannically pathetic. He could even make a vehicle like the uneven Anchorman enjoyable for his double takes of quiet desperation, and you knew the flop-sweat failure of Melinda and Melinda was Woody Allen’s, not his.

So Ferrell was still poised to lock up this summer in comedy. But first came the surprisingly drab, poky soccer-dad dud Kicking & Screaming, and now he’s playing another no-win role: an unlikable character—a vain actor named Jack Wyatt—who takes a job playing Darrin in a contemporary TV remake of Bewitched. By insisting that an unknown be cast opposite him in Montgomery’s old Samantha role, Jack stumbles upon Kidman’s Isabel, who really is a witch, but (like Samantha in the original) is trying to lay off the magic to lead a “normal” life.

With her little sweaters, crinkly upswept hair, and adoption of a high, twinkling voice, Kidman is doing the exact opposite of what she did in her finest movie role to date, 1995’s To Die For. Instead of being a ruthless TV-star shark, here she plays a kindly TV-star innocent, and she’s really good at it: Given a better film, Kidman’s performance would be getting raves for its deceptive simplicity. Instead, she’s stuck in this pomo movie about the making of a TV-show remake. It’s Being John Malkovich for Morons.

Thus, Kidman just does a lot of reacting to Ferrell’s temper tantrums, and plays straight woman to both Michael Caine (as her wily warlock father) and Shirley MacLaine (as the camera-hogging actress playing the witch-aunt Endora). A couple of Jon Stewart’s crack correspondents, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, appear in small roles that waste their time. Carell, who’s proved surprisingly not-disastrous in the Americanized version of the great BBC sitcom The Office, arrives late in the film to do a thankless Paul Lynde impersonation as Uncle Arthur.

The movie seems oddly edited; both Carell and the marvelous Amy Sedaris, as nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz, have abrupt scenes that surely must have been longer. In fact, the best stunt that Ephron pulls off is the quick meet-cute scene between Ferrell and Kidman in the L.A. bookstore Book Soup—just getting the cameras and crew wedged into that wonderful establishment’s book-crammed, oddly angled corners must have been a feat.

Bewitched is the kind of bore that gets you thinking about such extracurricular things. You sit there uninvolved, wondering why Ferrell didn’t recognize what a boorish botch his character was. And you start considering the notion that, ever since Nora Ephron took her writerly New York sharpness to Hollywood as the director of sentimental hits like 1998’s You’ve Got Mail and flops like 2000’s Lucky Numbers, she started using all her intelligence behind the scenes—to pitch concepts and arrange deals, rather than to get good stuff up on the screen.

Like most remakes, Bewitched had a rather complicated journey—a process that took nearly a decade. During the Clinton administration, Rob Morrow and Cynthia Nixon were in talks to star in an adaptation by Broadway’s Douglas Carter Beane and directed by actor Ted Bessell—before Bessell died in 1996. Then Jim Carrey flirted with playing Darrin, and Laurice Elehwany and others reportedly took stabs at scripts. Finally, Nora Ephron was hired in 2003; she took a risk on Nicole Kidman, who had already struck out once as a witch, in the awful Practical Magic, and once in a remake, the extra-awful Stepford Wives.

Directed by Nora Ephron.
Columbia Pictures. PG-13.

Salem’s Flop