[Screen It]

(2005) (Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell) (PG-13)

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Comedy: While remaking the 1960s TV sitcom "Bewitched," an actor unknowingly casts a real-life witch to play the role of his wife, who's also a witch, in the show.
Jack Wyatt (WILL FERRELL) is a mostly washed up actor who's appeared in a string of critical and financial disasters. He gets a last shot at redemption, however, when his manager, Ritchie (JASON SCHWARTZMAN), gets him cast to play Darren in a contemporary update of the popular 1960s TV sitcom, "Bewitched." Recognizing that the original show changed actors playing his part with no one seeming to notice, Jack wants the producers to cast an unknown actress to play the part of the witch Samantha.

He thinks he finds her when he spots attractive Isabel Bigelow (NICOLE KIDMAN) in a bookstore and notes that she even has the ability to wiggle her nose as needed in the show. Isabel doesn't know much about the world of TV production, or the regular world for that matter, as it turns out she's actually a real witch. Having led a sheltered life under her carefree, playboy father Nigel (MICHAEL CAINE), Isabel now wants to experience reality, sans any sort of magic, although she has a hard time going cold turkey.

Thus, when she's offered the part in the series, she agrees, much to the delight of her new best friend and neighbor Maria Kelly (KRISTIN CHENOWETH). With the aid of her assistant Nina (HEATHER BURNS), she joins Jack and actress Iris Smythson (SHIRLEY MacLAINE) -- who will play her character's witch mother, Endora -- on the set. While she's not terribly upset that she can't convince Jack that she's a real witch, she isn't happy that most everyone treats her in a condescending fashion and that Jack has rigged everything so that he gets most of the speaking lines and screen time.

With her relatives -- klutzy witch Aunt Clara (CAROLE SHELLEY) and sarcastic warlock Uncle Arthur (STEVE CARELL) -- showing up and complicating matters, Isabel decides to lift her ban on magic, but doesn't expect that she'll start falling for Jack as they continue shooting the show.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I'll be the first to admit that I'm no movie producing genius. If I were, I'd probably be in a different but related line of work to the current 9 to 5 -- uh -- 7 to 11 grind. That said, I'm positive that the following is a safe piece of moviemaking advice. If you have to remake a movie or turn a TV show into a big screen picture, for Heaven's sake, don't reference the original work.

For instance, it wouldn't have been wise in the remake of "Psycho" to have Anne Heche's character watch the original shower death scene before stepping foot into the bathroom. Similarly, the Lutzs in the most recent "Amityville Horror" might not have bought the house had they just seen James Brolin going psycho in a similar looking haunted abode.

And if you're going to remake "Bewitched," the popular TV sitcom that aired from 1964 to 1972 and then lived on for decades in syndication, you certainly don't show the new characters watching the old show. Yet, that's exactly what writer/director Nora Ephron and co-writer Delia Ephron (who previously collaborated on "You've Got Mail" and "Michael") have done with the long-in-development, big screen adaptation of the beloved series.

As they like to say, though, there's a method to their madness that actually turns out to be the film's strongest suit. And that's its premise. Rather than simply telling the same tale in an expanded, big-screen format, the filmmakers have taken a somewhat clever approach. You see, their film is about the making of the contemporary remake of the original TV show.

The twist, in the usual obligatory fashion, is that the producers as well as the washed up star of the new version don't realize they've hired an actual witch to play the part of resident witch Samantha Stevens. Hijinks and hilarity then ensue, along with romance, or at least that's what's supposed to happen.

Thus, there's an argument, however weak, for the new characters to watch the original show for pointers. Where the Ephrons and company make their mistake -- among many -- is by letting us watch with them. While the movie's marketing forces want to remind us of the source material so that we'll buy tickets and later the DVD, the last thing they want is for consumers to do some direct comparisons.

And that's exactly what occurs here. As much as Nicole Kidman ("The Interpreter," "The Stepford Wives") may look like Elizabeth Montgomery and as funny as Will Ferrell ("Kicking and Screaming," "Elf") can be (at least to some people), they simply pale in comparison to the originals (although a funny bit has Ferrell's character going territorial since he knows that Dick Sargent replaced Dick York in the original show and nobody seemed to bat an eye). And their chemistry together -- what made the original show so good -- feels nothing short of shoehorned into the movie.

Even worse are the comparisons in the supporting categories. Michael Caine ("Batman Begins," "Secondhand Lions") gets more screen time than Maurice Evans ever seemed to have in the show but is decent in the part playing the main witch's father. The likes of Shirley MacLaine ("Mrs. Winterbourne, "Guarding Tess"), Carole Shelley ("Jungle 2 Jungle," "The Road to Wellville") and Steve Carell ("Melinda and Melinda," "Anchorman"), though, don't even come close to matching the comedic abilities of Agnes Moorehead, Marion Lorne and especially Paul Lynde in the respective parts of Endora, Aunt Clara and Uncle Arthur. Carrel's is the worst, as he unsuccessfully tries to imitate Lynde's brilliant sardonic attitude, but comes up way short.

Setting aside those flaws, the question that remains is whether the cast and crew manage to deliver the laughs, romance and magic that many will be expecting. The answer is yes and no, with the basis resting with one's expectations and degree of standards for such material. For me, the film was more amusing than funny, and I enjoyed it more when Ferrell was being a jerk than when he goes into his standard shtick while under a spell (in moments that will appease fans of his usual work).

The romance between the leads might appease less discerning viewers, but otherwise feels forced and mostly grinds the film to a halt past the midway section when it finally but unbelievably flares up. And the magic, well, let's just say it isn't terribly magical, whether in terms of spells and such (little of the witchcraft, hexes and such is terribly imaginative or clever) or in regards to that quality that films and the sum of their parts sometimes manage to conjure up.

While Kidman may have the Samantha looks and nose wiggle down -- after an awful start where she seems to be channeling Marilyn Monroe through a kewpie doll (that thankfully disappears after a while) -- the filmmakers don't have enough fun with the character and end up making her a mere shadow of her counterpart on the show.

While I ended up liking the film a bit better than I thought I would, it simply doesn't take advantage of its fun premise to be a truly magical experience at the movies. Featuring a weak and haphazard script and committing the cardinal sin of allowing for unfavorable direct comparisons to the far better source material, "Bewitched" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 9, 2005 / Posted June 24, 2005

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