Spelling Test

When you spend most of your supposedly working life in the plush embrace of a cinema seat, you don’t see a lot of daytime television. Not that I feel I’m missing out, it’s that the result is sizeable gaps in my pop culture education, one of which is sit-com Bewitched, like the similarly naïve I Dream of Jeannie and Mr Ed one of a rash of supernaturally inspired shows from the early days of American television that still make the rounds of the outer reaches of the cable stations 40 years after they were originally broadcast, but a slice of Americana that means little or nothing to me.

Expectations are pretty low to begin with, so when inevitably and tiresomely the central concept behind Bewitched, a witch tries her hand at being a suburan housewife, is recycled by the Hollywood machine (busily spewing out retro-fitted big screen TV show makeovers for twenty years now and with no end in sight) in the shape of director Norah Ephron, you’d imagine looking at it with fresh eyes would help. It doesn’t. For these fractured, ironic, post-modern times a straight remake isn’t going to work. Ephron feels she needs an original kink, or at least let’s pretend its original, so this time the set up is Hollywood’s favourite topic, Hollywood.

The steamy cauldron of LA being increasingly the only source of magic in our snake’s belly shallow culture, it is entirely fitting that white witch Isobel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) bases herself in a typical suburban house in the San Fernando Valley as she starts her new life, eschewing all of her magical powers to live instead an ordinary life as an ordinary woman. She wants to find cute pink sunhats, a yellow VW Beetle and her true love, and preferably in that order. The man she settles on, for reasons the film never makes clear, is the bigheaded, delusional Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a faded former movie star whose career temperature has hit absolute zero, the same number as the sales of his last DVD. On the advice of his sleazy and increasingly desperate agent (Jason Schwartzman), Jack reverts to recurring television comedy drama and finds himself starring as the mild mannered husband in a remake of Bewitched. Countless audition montages fails to find an appropriately twitchy actress who can replicate Samantha’s nose movements until Jack sees Isabel in a bookshop. He wants her to take the role so he’ll get all the attention, she’s gorgeous and he’s recently divorced and, crucially, because of her ability to twitch her nose. What everyone doesn’t know is that Isabel is in fact a real life witch, an example of what I believe the Americans call ironing.

Following her ruminant appearance in The Hours, Bewitched is the second concoction built around Nicole Kidman’s nose – she was forbidden from twitching it in public by a studio nervous that doing so would deprive most of the audience of the reason for going to see the movie. But the twitch was the ultimate sit-com contrivance, in story terms it’s the equivalent of waving a wand around but far more discreet, perfect for a close up and not at all threatening. In terms of the drama, and the serial nature of the sit-com, it is, literally, a character tic designed to provide a couple of moments of small-screen intimacy in each episode between the pretty girl and the viewing audience and, funny or not, a spurt of canned laughter and a drumming twinkle of piano perfectly fit the crack in the soundtrack. It’s not nearly so much fun when the glacier-smooth nose is 70 foot tall and there doesn’t seem to be anything else happening.

Kidman is likeably frisky and sexily breathless, but perky and bright didn’t save The Stepford Wives and it doesn’t save Bewitched. For a man who has only recently risen to A List status, Ferrell is worrying repetitive and altogether ordinary. They both get to crack a few funny lines occasionally (Ferrell’s demand for 200 cappuccinos…“and bring me the best one!” is hilarious), but the whole misguided conceit has them headed in opposite directions, robotically executing parallel story lines that never intersect, not even for a moment. He never gives her a reason to find him even remotely loveable and she never looks at another man. The movie has been directed in her signature style by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail), that is to say anonymously. Together with her sister and co-screenwriter Delia, the Ephron’s present a cute parade of individual scenes, for all I know straight from the original material, but nothing approaching a film as such. It’s a traditionally structured movie, it has a start at the start and an ending at the end, but what either of Ephron’s stars are doing at either point I could not tell you.

But the problem with Bewitched isn’t the acting, or even the ongoing dredging of the cultural silt settled in the museum of television. The problem is the script. To all intents and purposes, there isn’t one. For a film that just scrapes 100 minutes, Bewitched drags along like November. The longer it drags, the less there is going on and everything gets sucked into the resulting narrative coriolis effect long before the point of boredom. The real interest in Bewitched might lie in the surrounding cast, reduced to cameos at the expense of the blundering top-line talent. Michael Caine has a handful of scenes as Kidman’s flirtatious old rogue of a father, Shirley McClaine, who famously thinks of herself as a mystic in real life, provides a few laughs as a showboating co-star who has a few tricks up her own sleeve. More of both might have helped things along enormously, but seeing as so little of their performances appears to have made it to the screen, we will never know. The litter of lost opportunities continues with bafflingly brief and random appearances from the likes of Ephron’s regular comic character foil Michael Badalucco and the upbeat and energetic Kristen Chenoweth.

Whatever magic there was here, and from where I'm standing there wasn’t all that much, has been evaporated – regardless of the tricks of modern conceptualisation, the moebius strip of overlapping storylines swallows up any opportunity to show where Isobel’s uncanny gift comes from or offer any real sense (beyond Kidman’s dreamy, orgiastic sighing) of other-worldliness. It’s all well and good for the first half hour but then everything seems to stall and the characters have nowhere to go. The set-ups continue, but they are so horribly fractured there’s no reason to care, or to pay much attention, even when someone is paying you to be there. Ferrell gets to do his comic riff on a rampant ego at the edge of hysteria; Kidman does the nose thing and learns to assert herself without magic and that’s about it. If Kidman and to a lesser extent Ferrell, insist on paddling in the shallows they can’t complain when they occasionally run aground. As there would appear to be no end to this tide of remakes inspired by old television, perhaps instead of leaving the house I should spend a bit more time on the couch, remote in hand, and call it research.

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