It’s unlikely the movie-going public was waiting with bated breath to see if Nora Ephron could come back after five years and successfully direct a movie that didn’t fall into her patented bland recycling of classic romantic comedies, but it’s pleasant to report that Ephron’s film of Bewitched—written with sister Delia—is far from unbearable and at times approaches something akin to “comedy” (a concept that Ms. Ephron had previously evinced an only fleeting acquaintance with). The biggest thing that the sisters Ephron did right was deciding to not go the obvious route and just take the old TV show, give it a modern setting, and add some potty humor and instantly dated cultural references.
This is what appears to be happening in the movie’s beginning, as Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), the witch who wants to be mortal, arrives Mary Poppins-style in L.A., gliding down in a shower of flower petals, and moving into her charming little modern bungalow with a cute little VW in the garage. Isabel’s father Nigel (Michael Caine) thinks she’s nuts for giving up a life where magic can make everything come easy for you, while she’s determined to make her way in the world without it. The twist is that when Isabel finds her job, it’s not by the hard work she’d envisioned, but by being able to wrinkle her nose just like Samantha, the witch in the original show Bewitched. Has-been actor Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) has been cast as the male lead in a new TV show of Bewitched and he’s desperate to find a nobody to play opposite so that he can shine all the more in her reflection. Thusly, the utterly naïve Isabel (an actual witch) ends up playing TV’s most famous fictional witch. Romantic complications ensue, spells are cast, and it’s fun for the whole family.
What keeps Bewitched just barely out of the summer slush pile is its sense of light-hearted fun, something missing from Ephron’s clunky romantic comedies, which were overburdened with genre clichés and about as nimble as a Humvee. Kidman plays it light, sparkly, and slightly dumb, a newcomer in this world of mortals who have to worry about things like rent and jobs, and wisely leaves the humor heavy lifting to Ferrell, who tones it down a couple notches from his usual nuclear-powered clowning, but still handily walks away with the picture. Helping out from the sidelines are a fine collection of supporting players (especially the preternaturally perky Kristen Chenoweth), most of whom are given too little to do, but this is a film that would hardly work at even a few minutes over 90, and thusly anything unessential likely had to be scrapped. However, this doesn’t provide an excuse for making a magnificent pair out of Caine and Shirley MacLaine (as another actress on the show, wonderfully operatic in her self-obsession and permanently swathed in feathered boas) and then ditching them.
This is a comedy that also gets away with more than it deserves, even using “Everybody Hurts” on the soundtrack, not to mention barely developing any backstory for Isabel’s fish-out-of-water status. We’re given practically no information about her previous life, and so any culture shock resulting from her landing in Southern California and trying to act like a normal person has very little impact. The burden here falls again to Ferrell, forced to make something out of very little. Bewitched is, in the end, little more than a serviceable summer comedy, but coming as it does out of the wasteland of TV remakes and such drek as You’ve Got Mail, that can seem quite an accomplishment.