In the ’60s it seemed like everyone was living next to someone strange. You were likely to share your quiet cul-de-sac with monsters, genies, or worse still, oil rich rednecks.
All the xenophobia of the previous decades dissolved, leaving us with a bunch of magical misfits and miscreants with whom we could swap barbs over the back fence. There was never a fish further from water than Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, who left a life of as a privileged immortal to become the wife of some dunderhead called Derwent, sorry, Darrin, a shocking chauvinist and as boorish as a mortal could be.
Samantha was, of course, a witch, which means that in the middle ages she might have been something as harmless as a midwife or a naturopath, despite being seen as more suited to being burnt at the stake. But in the sunny ’60s, where women loved, honoured and mixed Martinis, she was a suburban housewife forbidden from using her powers by a dishwater-dull advertising executive.
This was formula television at its most exaggerated, rarely an episode would pass without some eccentric relative imposing their powers on the Stevens household, leading to some spell that had to be broken to rescue Darrin’s career. All would have been lost if Samantha hadn’t been a one-woman Saatchi and Saatchi and been able to conjure slogans as easily as spells. (Sam was clearly a victim of the black arts herself as she failed to realise the extent of her exploitation or even the fact that she switched husbands at one point.)
While Bewitched the TV series was classic, if more than a bit campy, Bewitched is a seriously flawed film, but fascinating for its flaws. Writer/director Nora Ephron botches this film so badly as to almost eradicate the achievements of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.
First of all, this production has no appreciation of the original series as anything other than kitsch. Secondly, it has no understanding of the relationships that made the series successful. Thirdly, it tries to have a bet every which way in a chaotic film that strains and eventually collapses under its own attempt to be clever.
This is not a remake, but a remake of a television series about a remake of a television series. This is not the story of a wise witch who lives as a mortal for the love of a mere man. This is the story of a witless witch who comes to earth only to be cast in a show about a witch, in which she falls in love. Comedy is hard enough without labouring it with complexity. Fail at being clever and the results are downright clumsy.
To demonstrate how wrong this film gets it, look at how it treats its supporting characters (and Bewitched was a busy show indeed). Endora appears as an actress playing an actress who is playing a witch while she really is a witch played by Shirley Maclaine. Clumsy Aunt Clara appears as an actress playing a witch who so closely resembles the witch on the show within the show as to make you wonder which witch she is.
Then there’s an actor playing the actor who played camp old uncle Arthur, who has no resemblance to the actor except he can perfectly mimic the character from the original series who magically appears to the actor playing the actor playing Darrin in ‘real life’. And then there’s Michael Caine as the witch’s father who isn’t acting at all, in a performance so bad you’d swear he was under some kind of spell.
At the centre of this catastrophe is the story that should have been told. If they had followed Nicole’s character, the results would have been truly enchanting. Nicole Kidman is the only working part in this movie. She’s delightful, her character is charming and the situation in which she finds herself is brimming with comic potential — a naive young woman who on a whim gives up her powers to pass in the real world even though she hasn’t got a clue how to live there, especially without magic. Enter an equally clueless love interest unaware that his woman is a witch. It’s not Bewitched (actually it’s more like I Dream of Jeannie), but neither is this rubbish.
It might have worked if they’d just tried to update the series by playing it straight, as they do in the last moments, which rubs salt into the wound by showing how the movie should have been made. Had the producers chosen simply to update this series, it would have still had resonance and relevance. The situation the TV show predicted has come to pass. Women have unleashed their magic on all spheres of existence, not just the home, and it is now common for men to have to deal with women as their superiors, a situation virtually unheard of at the time of the TV show.
You see, Bewitched wasn’t just another high-concept comedy from the ’60s. Bewitched was a crucible for the sexual and gender politics of the time. Samantha Stevens was a proto-feminist character, who successfully satirised the transitioning role of women. Trapped between the domestic goddesses of the ’50s and the bra-burners of the ’70s, Samantha was a woman who was so capable, so cunning, she could afford to cast off her magical powers to live as a mere mortal, a role at which she also excelled. Her husband in comparison was a boorish, brow-beating dinosaur, whose piggish pride would not allow his wife to be better than him when in fact she did his job better than he ever could.
But instead of concentrating on Samantha, this film is inevitably about Darrin. It isn’t sensible enough to follow its own advice — Darrin is a dud, give Samantha the screen time! This film makes the same mistake it lampoons in the movie, where the actor in the remake wants to make it about Darrin when Samantha is clearly the star. Will Ferrell is a loveable actor, but he is playing an unlikeable actor playing an unlikeable character and the fact that our Nicole is expected to fall in love with him suggests that perhaps he is the one making hexes.
So what we have is a film without either comedy or chemistry and no power on earth could have saved it, mortal or magical. These are just some of the epic errors and spectacular miscalculations in a movie that is not so much a case of ‘bewitched, bedazzled and bewildered’ as ‘botched, butchered and bewildering’.