”Bedazzled” never sustains a dazzling level of farcical invention or execution, but it’s the only pick-me-up among this weekend’s batch of new movies, which favor the wretched and inconsolable.
“Bedazzled” also is more enjoyable than what I anticipated based on the trailer, which failed to show off the happiest attributes: Brendan Fraser in a medley of personality switches and the trick-shot wizardry of Richard Edlund, the special effects photographer, who enhances several sequences with wonderful sight gags.
The movie is a remake of a clever, stylish and diabolical farce, which was directed in 1967 by Stanley Donen from a screenplay tailor-made for themselves by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The new “Bedazzled” retains the title and format while transposing the principal setting from London to San Francisco.
Mr. Fraser a bigger, brawnier focus of comic solicitude than Mr. Moore plays a lovelorn social leper named Elliott Richards who is employed as a computer service consultant at a firm called Synedyne. While hanging out at an after-hours bar, he attracts a slinky agent of Satan played by Elizabeth Hurley, definitely a glamorous and seductive improvement on the late Mr. Cook.
The temptress proposes to reverse Elliott’s fortunes with wealth and romance: He gets seven wishes and the devil gets his soul.
The deal is short-circuited after five episodes, reflecting the fundamental dishonesty of Satan, a shameless double-crosser, and perhaps the good judgment of director Harold Ramis and his writing collaborators, Larry Gelbart and Peter Tolan.
A sophisticated trio of humorists, they might have sensed that pushing their luck all the way to No. 7 would be perilous. In fact, luck fails them with No. 5, an ignominious sketch in which Mr. Fraser is badly disguised as President Lincoln.
The miscalculation at this juncture is that you expect him to be deployed in a contemporary setting when the Oval Office is mentioned. There haven’t been any time machine jokes previously. Looking at Mr. Fraser, one would anticipate a burlesque of President Clinton or Vice President Al Gore long before a Lincoln wheeze.
The filmmakers seem to be protecting the Hollywood liberal franchise with this evasion.
Mr. Fraser is at his most ingratiating when transformed as an Antonio Banderas joke and then an Al Franken joke. The second episode, which finds him mooning over dream girl Frances O’Connor on a picturesque, twilight beach while burdened with ridiculously sensitive attributes, is the movie’s best single brainstorm.
The most outrageous, No. 3, transforms him into a white-fantasy basketball superstar of stupefying proportions, a towering clod whose awesome athletic skills are canceled out by freakish and moronic personality traits.
The encompassing characterization of Elliott seems pathetic to a fault in the early going, but the misadventures set the stage for a winning transformation at the end.
The wised-up Elliott is Brendan Fraser at his most easygoing and attractive. Mr. Edlund has expressed the shift with a lovely pictorial flourish.
Elliott the loser is seen opening a front door to his office building and waiting while streams of people flood through, obliging him to wait indefinitely, for the rest of mankind, as it were.
At the end, he seems to bike up one of the steeper San Francisco streets without the slightest effort, so happily abstracted that he might as well be coasting downhill.
2 and 1/2 stars
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity; occasional sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting allusions to the drug traffic)
CREDITS: Directed by Harold Ramis
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes