Written by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron
Directed by Nora Ephron
By the time 2005 rolled around, television to film adaptations were pretty standard in Hollywood. That year alone, we got movie versions of The Honeymooners, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Firefly (Serenity). Nora Ephron was also a known quantity in the studio system. She’d been responsible for big hits like When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle. Bewitched was a popular sitcom when Ephron would have been a young woman, and its themes of feminism and identity hiding inside a “silly premise” felt perfectly fitting to the filmmaker’s talents. And then your stars are Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, both of whom are in high demand in the mid-2000s. What could go wrong? Everything actually. Every-fucking-thing.
Isabel Bigelow (Kidman) is an actual witch who leaves her unseen home to move to Los Angeles. She befriends her next-door neighbor Maria (Kristin Chenoweth) and goes about enjoying her new mortal life. Her father, Nigel (Michael Caine), pops in, trying to discern why his daughter would choose this life as it baffles him. Meanwhile, hot shot actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) is seeing his film career wan and is approached to star as Darin in a remake of Bewitched. His agent (Jason Schwartzmann) pushes Jack to give into his inner diva and demand he is the show’s star. The role of Samantha can be an unknown actress. Isabel decides she needs a job around this time and ends up auditioning and getting the part. However, she can see right through Jack’s bullshit, and conflict begins.
Also starring in this film are Shirley MacLaine, Stephen Colbert, David Alan Grier, Steve Carrell, Amy Sedaris, Richard Kind, and many actors you might not know the names of but will recognize from their many appearances in movies & television. Bewitched cannot be saved by its cast, though, and it is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I hadn’t seen it until viewing it for this review and kept thinking it was probably unfairly maligned at the time. But, of course, misogyny is ever-present in the culture, and such a female-driven comedy probably did meet with ire for that reason. No, this is such a massive misstep by Ephron. I am stunned as to how this got through all those studio greenlights.
The script never chooses a direction and sticks with it, so you end up with a very episodic movie that is constantly tonally jarring. I also got the sense that the actors were not being given clear direction as they often felt confused in scenes. I suspect the studio wanted Ferrell to be cast because of his success in Anchorman, but that wasn’t a Nora Ephron romantic comedy, and the actor just does not have the charisma needed for such a role. He comes off as obnoxious, and I wanted him gone as soon as he came on screen. Kidman is trying her best and has a natural charm, so even in a bad role, you can’t help but like her.
The decision to go meta with the story isn’t bad; it’s all in how you execute that concept. This is not it, though. The movie seems unsure of what it wants to do with Isabel & Jack. In one moment, they are enemies. Then Isabel casts a spell, so Jack falls in love with her. Fifteen minutes later, they are physically attacking each other. The story also doesn’t give us enough of Bewitched, we spend so much more time watching these actors bicker, and I get that the Ephron sisters were trying to recreate a style of comedy from decades prior; see The Philadelphia Story and its cousins. But Ferrell is no Cary Grant, and that is plainly obvious. The main plot keeps pulling viewers away from what they came to see, a big screen recreation of Bewitched.
Even more bafflingly, we have characters from the Bewitched show appear in the movie’s universe. At one point, Isabel distractedly summons Aunt Clara. I say it that way because the way this is communicated visually in the film is hugely confusing. There’s never an explanation as to how this fictional character appears, knows Isabel, and Isabel doesn’t act confused. She is shown to have no knowledge of the Bewitched series previously and watches episodes to prepare for the reboot, but this particular scene just sort of happens. Even worse is the Uncle Arthur scene where Steve Carrell shows up in the third act to do a mid-tier Paul Lynde impersonation. Uncle Arthur appears to Jack without any explanation ever. There’s a throwaway line somewhere in the movie about “weird things happen when you start dating a witch,” but that feels like something added to try and manage what a mess the film had become. I still don’t understand if Uncle Arthur was a figment of Jack’s imagination, a spell cast by Isabel, or the actual Arthur manifesting in this world.
There is a space to experiment with adapting a television series into a film. Typically we see a serious approach (Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible) or tongue in cheek (The Brady Bunch, Dragnet). Delivering something the audience isn’t expecting could be a welcome change of pace. But Bewitched is nowhere close to hitting that mark. I didn’t expect to enjoy the movie too much, but I never could have predicted how much I would actively dislike it. My positive sentiments about Ferrell had been waning over the last few years; what was funny to me in college in the early 2000s hasn’t held up to the present day. Seeing him in Bewitched confirms that I don’t like him outside of a few Saturday Night Live sketches. If you are a fan of Bewitched, I would not recommend watching this movie because it doesn’t even give the satisfaction of recreating the show’s tone. On the other hand, if you are the kind of person who likes to watch horrific accidents, then I think you have found your film.