The Witch is Back!

Main Cast: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Michael Caine

Director: Nora Ephron

I wanted it. I wanted it all. The twitching nose, the fab hairdo and the most coveted treasure of all – the magic. I wanted that magic. That’s right, I wanted to be Samantha Stephens. I figured I would dump Darrin, hex the boss and the nosy neighbor and fly off to live the life of the uber-witch with Paul Lynde along to make me laugh. Alas, it simply wasn’t meant to be – a mere mortal in the suburbs was to be my fate. But a big screen Bewitched? Oh, yes. That had me itching for twitching all over again.

For anyone not familiar with it, the original Bewitched television series (1964-1972) starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens; a witch – married to Darrin, a mortal man – determined to be a regular mortal housewife. Ever vexed by her bevy of paranormal relatives – including mother Endora, Uncle Albert (the aforementioned Paul Lynde), Aunt Clara and her father – Samantha does her best to balance two very uncomplimentary worlds. Of course, complications arise as her magical world intrudes on her suburban neighborhood. Bewitched (2005) rolls with that original source material, bringing into it some twists and turns and making it into more than just another tired TV re-make or parody.

In the 2005 version, the Bewitched world is wrapped around what is, at its core, a romantic comedy. A really, really predictable, basic romantic comedy. Now under most circumstances, this would likely make me want to throw up. I’m just not a big fan of the genre. But here, the whole thing is more than palatable, the predictability muted by a clever story and a nostalgic tone; making the whole thing sweet and funny.

We begin with Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) breezing her way into a new house in the suburbs. Not just breezing in the usual way, breezing with a tug on her ear and a swish of a finger that turns a house into her house. Isabel is, of course, a witch. But she wants to live as a mortal. Tired of dating self-centered warlocks, she longs for a messy, hopelessly imperfect mortal man who needs her. Over the protestations of her father (a delightful Michael Caine) she commences on her new path, determined to forgo the use of magic and reinvent herself, despite being more or less clueless about the mortal world.

Next we encounter Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), an actor who is rapidly circling the drain following a disastrous feature film outing. Desperate to reignite his career, he accepts the role of Darrin in a new re-make of Bewitched. As a spoiled movie star, he is easily swayed by weasel/manager Ritchie into making ridiculous demands and insisting that the show be all about Darrin with Samantha only on the periphery – making casting an unknown actress crucial. Jack spots Isabel at a bookstore and, amazed at her nose twitching ability, begs her to take the role (he’s hopelessly imperfect, of course, exactly what she’s looking for). Despite complete ignorance of the original show (she was forbidden to watch it – it was demeaning to witches), reluctance to play a witch and the protestations of her father, she takes the role. And so it is that we have a film that winds its plot and characters together within both an actual re-make and a fictional re-make. It’s quite clever and puts a nice spin on the tired and worn trend of re-makes and parodies of old television shows.

The romance between Jack and Isabel is made infinitely more delightful by the good natured nostalgia that permeates the film. When the movie pokes fun, it’s not often to parody the original, but rather to take a swipe at the world of insipid rehashing of old television and have a bit of fun at its own expense. There’s even a bit of light reverence for the original series, and particularly for the late Elizabeth Montgomery. Not sappy reverence or painful homage, just a lighthearted nod to the source material. There’s a genuine affection here for the original, not a desire to mark its dated outlook on marriage or its special effects or even its sixties wardrobe. The film wants to capture the original magic, not ridicule it – a welcome change of pace.

Our main characters are decidedly not Darrin and Samantha Stephens – they’re Jack and Isabel. Jack is insecure, arrogant and stupid, throws tantrums and is just generally a jerk. Underneath all that, he is really quite sweet, with a childlike, fanboy enthusiasm for remaking some classic TV. These two parts of his personality clash a little, but with the help of Ritchie the Weasel, the jerk tends to win. Isabel is a naïve and innocent witch who stumbles into her job and her relationship with Jack, stars in her eyes and fantasies of “saving” this mess of a man. She’s a more than competent witch, but not a very adept mortal.

Ferrell and Kidman are perfectly cast. In the past, Ferrell has played characters with, at most, one note – sometimes half a note. Here, writers Delia and Nora Ephron mix it up and let him loose with a good mixture of arrogance, innocence, stupidity and even a touch of SNL cheerleader physical goofiness. The screenplay plays to Ferrell’s strengths, allowing for the physical comedy and exaggerated, hyper-emotive line delivery that he does so well. Ferrell pulls off the role beautifully – we actually like this man even with his shortcomings. He’s sweet and very funny. The scene in which he is hexed into spilling out a simple line about a dog using everything from Shakespearean verse to what sounds suspiciously like Klingon is wonderful, Ferrell at his best.

Kidman’s Isabel could easily have been annoying in her wide-eyed naiveté, but she isn’t. Her lack of knowledge of the mortal world is nicely offset by her twinkle-in-the-eye use of magic should the need arise. Her loose curls and retro wardrobe soften her sometimes severe off-screen persona and she is a strong enough actress to pull off exasperated, angry, confused and endearingly ignorant while keeping the character light and funny.

Strong supporting performances from Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman, Shirley MacLaine (as Iris Smythson playing Endora) and an over-the-top funny Steve Carell as Uncle Arthur add yet another level of fun and mischief to an already strong film. The special effects are subtle but quite amusing and effective. As in the original Bewitched, there isn’t a lot in the way of earth-shattering visuals. Most of the magic is low key; with a wink and a grin that makes it all the more fun to watch. One particular scene in a grocery store between Isabel and her father is, perhaps, one of the best combined uses of special effects and product placement I’ve ever seen.

In the end, I got my wish. Oh, not to become Samantha (though I still hold out some hope on that front), but to spend some time steeping in a little magical nostalgia. Director Nora Ephron takes a show I loved, gives it a few spins and a twitch of her nose and creates something new – a film that loves the show too. Bewitched is a predictable romantic comedy bolstered by a clever story, a script that makes good use of the strengths of its cast and terrific performances. The film wins because it wraps everything up in a sweet kind of nostalgia and winks at the audience while poking gentle fun at its own re-make status. If only it came with a how-to manual on becoming Samantha Stephens……but I guess I’ll just have to be content with practicing my nose twitch and hoping to get a broom for my birthday…..

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