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BEWITCHED – Missing that old magic

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Nora Ephron
Rated: PG

BEWITCHED played on television screens around the world from 1964-72 and was the brainchild of US funny man Sol Saks, who drew inspiration for the sitcom from two whimsical Hollywood movies, I Married a Witch (1942) and Bell, Book and Candle (1959).

Bewitched was based on the observation that men passionately in love with their wives are in a sense ‘bewitched’ by them.

The series was a huge success, as it still is today, because it inverts the balance of power between men and women with immense good humour and without damaging the status quo.

In the original Bewitched, Samantha (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), is a witch wanting to be an ordinary woman who falls in love with Darrin (Dick York, then later Dick Sargent), who she is determined to marry.

All goes well until Darrin discovers to his consternation and bewilderment that Samantha can unleash powerful magic with just a wiggle of her adorable nose.

Clearly out of his depth, Darrin makes Samantha promise never to use magic again. Samantha agrees.

But the fun, of course, is Samantha’s inability to keep her promise, and the delicious havoc she wreaks (as do other members of her magical family — her mother, uncle and aunt), while striving to be the perfect suburban housewife.

When writer-director Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) was approached to make a film version of Bewitched, it was decided by Ephron and her collaborators not to produce a direct remake of the show, but to merge ‘reality’ with fiction.

In this new scenario, a real life witch, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), who craves to be an ordinary woman married to a mortal man, finds herself recruited to play the role of Samantha in an updated remake of Bewitched because she bears an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Montgomery and can wiggle her nose.

The star of the show is Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a genial but egotistical Hollywood star who hopes to revive his flagging career by playing Darrin in the remake of Bewitched.

He and his pushy manager Richie (Jason Schwartzman) only want Isabel as a prop to Jack’s not very well delivered jokes and pratfalls.

But when Isabel (played superbly by Kidman) twigs that she is only wanted as a stooge and not for herself, she has the choice of either quitting or getting mad.

Isabel, of course, chooses the latter, and this trajectory provides the very best of the film’s humour, which includes a hilarious scene in which Isabel forces Jack to recite his lines on set in a medley of styles ranging from Shakespeare to Marlon Brando.

Bewitched begins to lose steam in the last third of the film, and the comedy becomes strained when Isabel reneges on her plans to punish Jack and reverts to the Samantha of the series, as if the film-makers feared that the muscle of a more contemporary version of the story would conflict with the charm and commercial potential of the old.

Ephron’s Bewitched sets out to explore the power of women to dazzle and bewitch their men, the subtext being that such women also want to be active players in their own lives, and not simply adornments or props for their husband’s ego.

However, this is only half realised with the result that the film’s narrative device of blurring fiction with reality creates confusion, and is not as successful as it could be and is in such films as Nurse Betty, The Truman Show and Pleasantville.

Rather it is left to Michael Caine (as Isabel’s warlock father, Nigel) to convey Bewitched’s underlying premise that love is the real magic, when he asks almost as an aside if Iris (Shirley MacLaine), the witch playing an actress playing Endora (Samantha’s vamp-like mother), has cast a spell on him.

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