You know a romantic comedy is in trouble when the funniest line uttered is “Hey there, I have Hepatitis C!” It may not seem all that funny taken out of context, but at the time it was the sole laugh provided by the otherwise comedy-barren mess that is Bewitched.
Bewitched trades on our nostalgia for the classic sitcom in which a modern-day sorceress named Samantha strives to give up magic in exchange for a normal life with a mortal husband. Of course, Samantha finds quitting spellcasting akin to quitting smoking — it’s tough to do without a patch. The series is still enjoyable to this day, in part due to a marvelous ensemble that included Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, Dick York (and later Dick Sargent) as her husband Darrin, and Agnes Moorehead as Sam’s meddling mother, Endora.
To her credit, Nora Ephron, who co-wrote Bewitched with her sister Delia and who also directs, attempts to do more than carbon copy the original series. Still, given the convoluted approach taken, you wonder if it the end product wouldn’t have been better if she had. As it stands, the original is treated with such holy reverence, trading on our familiarity with the show, you’d think Ephron were adapting the Bible.
Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a washed-up, egocentric actor decides to revive his failing career by starring as Darrin in a remake of the Bewitched TV series. Among his list of demands: that he be the show’s central focus and that an unknown be cast as Samantha. He finds his little nose-wriggler by chance. Her name is Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) and it turns out she’s a real-life witch who, just like Sam, is swearing off magic in an attempt to live a normal, mortal existence. She’s through with instant gratification.
The parallel to the show is less-than-adroitly handled by Ephron, who lets the movie deflate, frame by frame, until there’s nothing left. Romantically, it’s a bust, since Ferrell makes an unconvincing romantic lead and shares no chemistry with Kidman. There’s also a distinct lack of comedy and precious little in the way of “magical” happenings — odd for a movie about witches. I counted only one truly nifty effect, as Isabel’s father, Nigel (Michael Caine, who underplays the role to the point of somnambulism), literally walks out of a Hollywood backdrop.
Characters pop in and out of the narrative with no discernable logic, including Isabel’s Aunt Clara (Carole Shelley), a sweet, old doddering witch whose direct resemblance to her namesake from the original series isn’t even grazed upon, and a truly dismal Paul Lynde-imitation by Steve Carell, whose Uncle Arthur may or may not be a figment of Jack’s imagination. And why bother to hire the gifted Amy Sedaris and Richard Kind as nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz and her socially detached husband Abner if you’re not going to give them more than 20 seconds of screen time?
The biggest letdown is Shirley MacLaine as Iris Smythson, a diva hired to play the magical, meddling Endora. MacLaine, who can generally be counted upon to add a little class and life to whatever she’s in, provides nothing. She doesn’t just phone it in, she refuses to pick up the receiver. Ephron develops a subplot that has Iris and Nigel edging toward a romance of their own, and then makes it vanish — poof, Esmeralda-style — without any resolution. You wonder what wound up on the cutting room floor before letting loose a sigh of relief, thankful that the movie isn’t a second longer than its already overlong 98 minutes.
Kidman is luminescent as Isabel, and she’ll survive this dud, career intact. Ferrell, on the other hand, is another matter. His whiney, over-amplified delivery is growing stale. He may be a funny man, but he’s starting to show himself as a one-trick pony whose shtick crossed the finish line long ago.
Still, the failure of Bewitched lies squarely with Ephron, who is a good enough writer to have known better than to march forward with such an under-baked screenplay. Ephron pads the film out with three time-filling montages (possibly four, I lost count), including one in which Isabel and Jack celebrate their love by engaging in a silly after-hours dance on the set of their TV home.
With apologies to Frank Sinatra, whose “Witchcraft” is one of the many songs abused in the film’s soundtrack, all that can be said for Bewitched is… it’s witchcrap.
George A. Romero, after too many years of watching others appropriate the flesh-eating zombie genre he pioneered in the ’60s, has leapt back in the ring with Land of the Dead, the fourth installment in his walking dead series. And it’s extremely clear, from start to finish, that the master is back — and he’s going to show all the Romero-wannabes how to craft a truly great zombie movie.
Romero throws in a liberal amount of his usual socio-political undercurrent (in this case, he fires off at big business and cultural elitism), but you don’t really come to Land of the Dead for the subtext. You come to it for the blood-soaked face-off between those left alive and those who would make a meal of them.
Given the excessive gore, it’s amazing Land of the Dead got an R-rating. Romero, who shocked audiences with 1968’s entrails feasting scene in Night of the Living Dead, still finds ways to make us nauseous: there are more than a few novel zombicides that make you squirm in gore-gore glee.
The movie contains some ravishing visuals — visuals you can’t quite imagine coming from Romero, whose films have always had a slightly amateur quality. Land of the Dead is polished, slick, muscular and, with the exception of a bloated, draggy mid-section (a staple of all Romero films), about as much fun as you could hope for in a movie where you root for the undead and unburied.