- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

W riter/director Nora Ephron decided the best way to remake a gimmick-laden sitcom like “Bewitched” is to slather on a second layer of artifice.

So her film follows a fading actor (Will Ferrell) starring in an update of “Bewitched” who discovers the woman cast as Samantha (Nicole Kidman) is a real witch.

It sounds dreadful on paper, and looks much worse in the trailer, but turns out to be just the boost the stale concept needed.

That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t limp to the finish line, but it’s as inspired a twist as could be hoped for from a TV-to-film translation.

Miss Ephron, whose body of work caroms from the heights of “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) to the lows of “Mixed Nuts” (1994), creates a fizzy concoction of pop cultural nods and breezy sight gags.

It all may have gone for naught if not for Mr. Ferrell’s singular comic style. His blowhard character lets the “Saturday Night Live” alum trot out his greatest tics. Whether it’s that simmering rage or his child-like yelps, Mr. Ferrell wields the most magic here.

The new film opens with the actor’s egomaniacal Jack Wyatt deciding to take on the thankless Darren role to boost his career. He pressures the network suits into casting an unknown as Samantha, fearing an established star would steal his spotlight.

Along comes Isabel (Miss Kidman), a bona fide witch trying to lead a normal life. She and Jack meet in a local bookstore, where he watches her sneeze and realizes she can do “Bewitched” star Elizabeth Montgomery’s famous nose twitch.

Isabel auditions for the role, at Jack’s behest. She’s hired and couldn’t be happier since it had nothing to do with her magic.

When she discovers Jack is hoarding the show’s best lines for himself, Isabel decides to pull her bag of magic tricks out of storage. A nose twinkle here, an ear tug there, and Jack’s behavior becomes a lot more palatable.

But even when Jack is at his worst, Isabel finds something inexplicably adorable about him. Affections begin to bloom betwixt the spells and backstage maneuvering — and here’s where Miss Ephron’s normally keen romantic senses betray her.

Miss Kidman and Mr. Ferrell share a sharp comic chemistry. She’s dry and mannered, he’s a cauldron of churning emotion. Just don’t expect the kind of romantic sparks seen on the old “Bewitched” sitcom.

It’s partly the script’s fault, since it’s a chore to pin down just who this Isabel is. She’s generally bright but naive about people’s intentions. When her father arrives on the scene (Michael Caine having a blast as a libidinous warlock), Isabel reverts to a breathy voiced schoolgirl. Miss Kidman’s performance does little to clarify matters. She also lacks the warmth of Miss Montgomery’s Samantha.

The supporting players, some mimicking classic roles from the original series, fill in much of what otherwise would have been dead space. Steve Carell of “The Office” is an intermittent hoot as Uncle Arthur — basically an impersonation of the late Paul Lynde. Shirley MacLaine steals her earlier moments as Endora, preening to the television cameras as if it were a stage production. But she, like the adorable Kristin Chenoweth (playing a nosy neighbor), get abandoned mid-film in favor of the soppy romance.

“Bewitched” plays plenty of homage to its source. It’s reverential to the point of piety.

So give credit to cast and crew for not simply re-enacting the old show but for trying to bring something genuinely fresh to the update — even if the spell it casts is merely agreeable and not magical.

**1/2

TITLE: “Bewitched”

RATING: PG-13 (Slapstick violence, some mildly coarse language)

CREDITS: Directed by Nora Ephron. Written by Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron and Adam McKay.

RUNNING TIME:105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.

com/movies/bewitched/site/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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