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TV movie spins off

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

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With Bewitched, Nicole Kidman's career slips down yet another rung after her recent cinematic mishaps with The Stepford Wives and Birth. Writer/director Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail) knits together a misshapen movie using anomalous strands of narrative thread. With Sol Saks' well-loved television series as their stepping-off point, Ephron and co-scripter Delia Ephron overreach with a convoluted TV-show-within-a-movie structure that never takes flight. Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is an ego-driven movie star reduced to doing sitcom television after a box office flop and a painful divorce. In an effort to avoid being overshadowed by his new Bewitched TV show co-star, Wyatt insists on using an unknown modest actress named Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), who is secretly a real-life witch. Ferrell keeps his character's comedic energy high in spite of the nonexistent chemistry with Kidman whose character comes off as conflict-ridden to a fault.

Kidman's knack for wrinkling her nose just like her predecessor, Elizabeth Montgomery, is about as far as her acting ability goes toward striking the delicate comic balance that Montgomery perfected on the popular TV series. Nora Ephron's misjudged attempt at directly addressing the issue of Montgomery's all-eclipsing charisma sets off alarm bells early in the movie when Jack's agent, Richie (Jason Schwartzman), works to avoid the "Darrin syndrome" for his client. The condition refers to the recasting of the actor playing Samantha's husband in the original TV show, whose substitution went unnoticed by many in the show's audience. The problem here is that Kidman is not a natural comic actress and lacks the intentionality and quick-reflex line delivery necessary to zing punchlines into audience funnybones.

Bewitched drags and narrative potholes appear as Jack discovers that his ego is no match for the time-tripping magic that Isabel weaves under the watchful eye of her womanizing warlock father, Nigel (well played by Michael Caine). But other secondary characters are far less fortunate than Mr. Caine. Steve Carell (The Daily Show) completely misses the mark as Isabel's needling uncle Arthur, with an overtly affected performance meant to expound on Paul Lynde's loopy characterization from the original TV show.

The comic set pieces come in fits and starts that induce slight giggles rather than all-out laughs as the superficial romance between Jack and Isabel proves to be more of a contest between two little Hitlers with proclivities for breaking character. Bewitched never strikes a consistent comic tone or rhythm as characters play a game of push-me-pull-me in the midst of narrative atmospheric shifts that constantly derail the continuity of the story. Ferrell's character is at once attracted to and repulsed by Isabel, whose powers promise to emasculate his already insecure personality.

For her part, Isabel plays up the innocent and naïve aspects of her character in a way that rings false considering the phenomenal powers she possesses. Isabel's attraction to Jack is far less recognizable than his attention to her, which stems from his belief that he can exploit her to advance his career. Jack represents an infantile personification of the modern male, while Isabel represents an underdeveloped adult female in desperate need of outside coaching in order to navigate her way through life.

Eventually, Isabel realizes that she can't use her magic if she hopes to experience "true love." A curse-reversing montage visually unwinds the movie to reveal a romantic ideal that the filmmakers presumably conceived the movie with. But the device only reminds the audience that the comedic substance here is second hand. There isn't much magic in that.

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