Something was bothering me while I watched "Bewitched" the other night, something I couldn't quite put my finger on until a scene transpired in which Nicole Kidman -- who plays an actress starring as Samantha Stevens in a new televised version of the classic 1960s sitcom -- dances outside at night with Will Ferrell, who plays the actor playing Darrin. As Kidman's silhouetted form kicked and twirled against the moonlight, I was brought back, for a nanosecond, to Kidman's breakout performance in the 1995 black comedy "To Die For," when she performed an incredibly sexy, courageous seduction dance in front of Joaquin Phoenix's headlights.
And that's when I thought, "What the hell happened?"
Shocking as it is to say, Kidman -- who is usually a big part of what's right in her movies -- is a big part of what's wrong with "Bewitched," which is a misfire in pretty much every other department, too. Here, she's asked to play a sweet young witch named Isabel who yearns to break out of the cushy life of casting spells for everything she wants and settles into a French provincial cottage in the San Fernando Valley. She's discovered in a bookstore by Ferrell's Jack Wyatt -- a has-been movie star looking to make his comeback in a network "Bewitched" remake -- and immediately he sees her as the perfect Samantha. Isabel has the nose-twitch down -- though she's no Elizabeth Montgomery -- and she's pliant, naive and ego-free, the perfect foil for his spotlight-stealing modus operandi.
Throughout "Bewitched," which was directed by Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail"), Kidman delivers her lines in a breathy Marilyn Monroe whisper, wearing pastel colors and lamb-soft curls to accentuate Isabel's innocence. But there's something perverse about Kidman -- whose chops and ambition as an actor have been more than proven over a 20-year career -- playing the Meg Ryan role in the kind of movie even Meg Ryan doesn't make anymore. Regardless of the cute little hats and clam-diggers she wears, it's impossible to believe Kidman as a breathless ingenue; that relentless drive and steely Kidmanesque determination keep jutting through the cotton in flinty, sharp-edged shards.
Is there anything to like about "Bewitched"? Not much, except for Michael Caine, who once again serves as welcome comic relief, much as he did in "Batman Begins," yet another movie based on one of the baby boomers' most treasured pop-culture shibboleths. (And Hollywood wonders why nobody's coming to its warmed-over, endlessly repurposed movies this summer?) Caine plays Isabel's rakish warlock father, who keeps turning up at the most inopportune times and, thanks to the wonders of digitized effects, in the funniest places (as the Jolly Green Giant on a can of vegetables, say, or as Paul Newman's face on a package of microwave popcorn).
But his is the only performance that doesn't seem like an imitation of somebody else's, whether it's Steve Carell's unfortunate impression of Paul Lynde (Carell is one of several "Daily Show" alumni who show up in supporting roles) or Ferrell in a role that bears the unmistakable whiff of having been first offered to Jim Carrey, then Greg Kinnear. As the fatuously narcissistic Wyatt, Ferrell provides none of the warmth or likability that would justify him as Isabel's love interest, which marks another big problem with the movie: Not only do we not buy Kidman as a little girl lost, we can't think of one reason why she would carry a torch for this jerk.
By framing "Bewitched," not as a remake itself but as a movie about a remake, Ephron and her sister and co-writer Delia, along with co-writer Adam McKay, have made a creditable effort to sidestep invidious comparisons with the original show. With its TV-show-within-a-movie conceit, "Bewitched" manages to address its adult audience's skepticism and sentimental attachments head-on, such as when Wyatt and his colleagues fondly remember their favorite old episodes and characters. Ephron even goes so far as to show clips of the first show. But rather than give her version credibility, they serve only as a reminder of how knowing the original "Bewitched" was as a comedy of corporate and domestic manners.
Ironically, after Kidman and Ferrell have hit all the expected marks (meet cute, encounter obstacles, fall in love, encounter fatal setback, fall back in love), the movie winds up being hoist on its own petard, becoming the butt of one of its own inside jokes. Throughout "Bewitched," much fun is had at the expense of failed movie actors who must suffer the ignominy of doing series television. But watching Kidman mug and pout her way through such a fluffily inappropriate role, you wonder: If those guys are so pathetic, what does that make movie stars who do pallid Hollywood remakes of TV shows?
Bewitched (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some profanity, including sex and drug references, and partial nudity.