Nicole Kidman as Isabel Bigelow/Samantha
Will Ferrell as Jack Wyatt/Darren
Shirley MacLaine as Iris Smythson/Endora
Michael Caine as Nigel Bigelow
Jason Schwartzman as Ritchie
Kristin Chenoweth as Maria Kelly
Heather Burns as Nina
Jim Turner as Larry
Stephen Colbert as Stu Robison
David Alan Grier as Jim Fields
Michael Badalucco as Joey Props
Carole Shelley as Aunt Clara
Steve Carell as Uncle Arthur

If nothing else, director Nora Ephron’s big-screen version of Bewitched should go down in history as the most original version of a television show film adaptation ever.

Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is a failing movie star who has signed on to reprise the role of Darren in a new television version of Bewitched. Trying to keep himself firmly as the star of the show, he wants to cast an unknown who won’t upstage him as Samantha, and decides on Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) who uncannily embodies Samantha right down to her signature nose twitch. That’s because she actually is a witch who has decided to give up witchcraft and have a normal life, although she can’t quite manage to stop using her powers. Instead she finds herself working as an actress on a sitcom playing basically herself.

It’s a little bit too clever for it’s own good. The set-up for the story and a good bit of the comedy requires that the audience be aware that they are actually watching a remake of Bewitched that revolves around a remake of Bewitched. It gets points for being an interesting and different idea for a television remake, but the metatextuality can be off-putting.

Ephron equates the world of magic to the fantasy land of Hollywood where people aren’t really what they appear, but appearances are more important than anything else. She’s taken that idea a step further, suggesting that everyone is exactly as they appear to be, but no one realizes it. By agreeing to play Darren, Jack essentially becomes Darren – and Isabel becomes Samantha – and everything is out of whack until they come to accept it. This being a Nora Ephron film, it’s also a pretty standard romantic comedy about two people getting over their own personal problems (Jack’s actorly self-obsession and Isabel’s desire to be entirely normal and nothing else) in order to be together. That part of the story increasingly takes center stage as it progresses, pushing the ideas about the connection between fantasy and reality into the background.

Like any good adaptation, Bewitched is filled with winks and nods at the original, from mentions of old plots to working in many of the familiar characters. It does so always with a bit of a twist though, such as Shirley MacLaine as an older actress who both is and isn’t Endora and Steve Carell dead in character as the actual Uncle Arthur from the show who has accidentally been brought to life by magic.

Jack is the other thing that could be a deal breaker depending on how much you like or don’t like Will Ferrell, and it’s the biggest shift from show to screen. While the set up is very much the same as the show (witch trying to live in the real world) the comedy rests entirely on the shoulders of Darren/Jack/Ferrell. Ephron has tried to mix her particular type of well-observed and witty comedic dialogue with Ferrell’s brand of zaniness. Sometimes it works – especially Jack’s great introduction when his manager Ritchie (Jason Schwartzman) tries to talk him into taking the role of Darren – and sometimes it doesn’t. Unlike the original, where Darren was the straight man to his wife and her family’s magical shenanigans, everyone is the straight man to Ferrell’s Jack. How well this works depends entirely on how much you like Ferrell.

Kidman does solid work as Isabel-cum-Samantha, trying to find her place in the real world with a difficult to pull off mixture of worldliness and naivety that shouldn’t be believable but is. She’s looking for a mess of a man, and when she finds what she’s looking for in Jack she both loathes him and is attracted to him. It’s a hard boat to keep even, but Kidman does so elegantly, and all the while in a kind of breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. She doesn’t get a lot of jokes, but she and Ferrell work well as a comedy team – she sets them up and Ferrell spikes them. It’s to Ephron’s credit that she can keep both of them compelling as character’s and not just give in to Ferrell’s antics as has happened on some of his other films.

The other standout is Michael Caine as Isabel’s irascible father Nigel. His first scene explains perfectly why Isabel is doing what she is doing, and he takes to Ephron’s dialogue like a duck to water. Each of his scenes are a delight. It’s unfortunate there couldn’t have been more of him, but too much of any other supporting character – like Isabel’s best friends (Kristin Chenoweth; Heather Burns) or Ritchie – would disrupt the delicate balance between Isabel and Jack that keeps the story working.

Bewitched is a very original and very clever updating of the classic television show, but how much you like it will depend largely on funny you think Will Ferrell is. On the other hand, if you enjoy post-modern dissections of pop-culture, this is definitely the film for you.

Bewitched is rated PG-13 for some language, including sex and drug references, and partial nudity.

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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