THERE ARE some things that work in "Bewitched." Nicole Kidman's disarming smile, for example. She can brighten up like the high beams on a 18-wheeler. And when she does, Kidman briefly becomes what her character is meant to be: a sweet-natured but very real witch who finds herself playing a fake one in a television redo of the classic TV series "Bewitched."
Unfortunately, Kidman's power smile is just one of very few flickers in a dismal movie, like those isolated light bulbs that blink in an otherwise dead string of Christmas tree lights -- you know, that 250-foot garland you just spent hours draping around the porch and your front yard. The other flickers come from Kidman's co-star, Will Ferrell, who turns on the physical comedy as much as he can. He widens the eyes, makes whiny inflections in his voice or does geeky-twisty things with his body. He's working it, baby. But the trouble is, it looks and feels like work. When a comedy feels that forced, it's as good as over.
Kidman plays California resident Isabel Bigelow, born into a family of warlocks and witches, who has little experience with the normal world's quirks and ironies. Determined to join that real world and find a nonmagical Mr. Right, she renounces her witchery. Her father, Nigel (Michael Caine, apparently moonlighting from his butler duties as Alfred in "Batman Begins"), is not happy with this. So he keeps a wary eye on his daughter.
Meanwhile, over-the-hill actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) has agreed to star in a remake of the 1960s "Bewitched" series but only on the condition that his witchy co-star be a nobody. He can't afford to have someone steal the show from under him. When he sees Isabel twinkle her nose just like original "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery, he knows he has found his perfect candidate. He begs Isabel to take the part. She agrees, mainly because she thinks Jack might be her candidate.
This is when the fun is supposed to start. Unfortunately, the plot -- which director Nora Ephron wrote with her sister Delia Ephron -- feels contrived, as though the characters are only doing things because the script forced them. As for Shirley MacLaine, an eccentric actress -- who takes the role of Isabel's mother, Endora, on the TV show -- she hardly seems to belong here at all. Even the lightest of comedy should have some sort of serious underpinning. This movie has virtually none. For instance, being a witch essentially means being in control of your environment. What are the ramifications of suddenly living without this supernatural ability? What is a "normal" life? Isn't love, at its best, a sort of magical liberation? These and other questions are vaguely hinted at but not so fully explored. In the end, we are reduced to sitting out the movie, waiting for things to end. And since we know only too well how things will turn out, that's a tedious chore indeed. In the old days, they used to dunk witches underwater to see if they were really weavers of evil. But that's not necessary with "Bewitched." It sinks so deep and fast, you don't even see bubbles on the surface.
BEWITCHED (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- Contains sex and drug language, some obscenity and partial nudity. Area theaters.