Movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) has hit a career low. His latest ego project Last Year In Kathmandu has not only bombed but become the first film to sell no DVDs at all. Like many a failed movie star, Jack is forced to turn to television. One of the networks is about to revive the classic sitcom Bewitched and they think he'd be perfect to play the husband.
But who's going to play Samantha, the nose-twitching suburban witch made famous by Elizabeth Montgomery? To ensure star billing for his client, Jack's agent (Jason Schwartzman) demands that the network cast an unknown and by chance it's Jack himself who discovers the perfect Samantha (Nicole Kidman) sitting at a nearby table in a restaurant. Her name's Isabel and she says she isn't an actress but Jack begs her to read for the part and she's flattered enough to give it a try. It just so happens Isabel is more perfect for the part than Jack could guess. She's not just playing a witch, she is one.
After a spirited beginning, Bewitched runs out of ideas very quickly. It isn't a terrible film, just a terribly bland and forgettable one. That's a shame since the set-up is so promising. Rather than just lazily recreate an old sitcom, the filmmakers have given it a twist and come up with a behind-the-scenes angle that allows room for comic jabs at the TV industry, at Hollywood stars and at showbiz in general. That postmodern approach worked superbly for The Brady Bunch Movie and there's no reason it couldn't work here.
The casting is perfect, Will Ferrell in particular. A vacuous movie star is just the kind of character he does best and his first scene, in which he throws a tantrum at a meeting and makes ludicrous demands, is hilarious. Nicole Kidman is also ideal as Isabel / Samantha. She's much funnier than she was in The Stepford Wives and she makes a much better witch than she did in Practical Magic. My only quibble about Isabel is that her powers aren't so much witch-like as god-like. If you can reverse time and alter reality, why bother with a broomstick?
Bewitched has a good premise and two well-chosen stars on fine form - so what went wrong? Why am I struggling to remember the film five days after I saw it? I think the heart of the problem is director / screenwriter Nora Ephron's decision to make it a romantic comedy. Ephron has built her career on romcoms - she wrote When Harry Met Sally and directed Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail - so maybe it seemed logical. The trouble is Jack and Isabel are not well matched - it's hard to believe they could fall in love - and on top of that, they're so far fetched that it's hard to care. These are characters made for a wacky comedy, not a love story. When Bewitched goes the romantic route, the fun drains away.
There are consolations. Nora Ephron may not be at the top of her game but she's still good for some witty lines. There's a decent supporting cast too. Jason Schwartzman is good as a slimy Hollywood agent and Michael Caine is amusing as Isabel's warlock father, though he looks worryingly old and tired. Shirley MacLaine on the other hand, playing yet another sorceress, looks eerily young. She doesn't seem to have aged a day since 1983's Terms Of Endearment. Maybe she really is a witch.