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Bewitched wastes its ironic premise with romantic clichés

Putting square pegs in round holes seems a snap compared to putting old sitcoms in movie theaters. Most half-hour comedies tell 23-minute stories that never tamper with the premise, so nothing changes, week in, week out. But on the big screen, TV plots feel at once thin and overinflated. Yet Hollywood keeps making them, probably because their high name recognition outweighs whether audiences or filmmakers actually like the shows in question.

For the new Bewitched movie, director/co-writer Nora Ephron concocts a concept so high, you gape in admiration at the setup, although the finished product leaves you lukewarm. The Sleepless in Seattle filmmaker goes behind the scenes of a modern-day remake of the "Bewitched" show, only the actress playing supernatural hausfrau Samantha is a witch in real life.

Bewitched provides a bravura example of having your cake and eating it, too. The movie tweaks our pop obsession with TV Land gimmicks and catchphrases, while shamelessly exploiting it. Ephron and her cohorts build a film around vapid, nostalgia-driven material while telling themselves they're ironic commentators instead of huge whores.

Ephron's film relies on some strong casting and clever twists, but once it establishes the show-within-the-movie storyline, Bewitched mostly comes across as bothered and bewildered.

The "Bewitched" TV show remake provides a chance to rescue the career of flailing, cuckolded movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell). To ensure his stardom goes unchallenged on the show, Jack insists that an unknown actress play Samantha as second fiddle to his Darrin. For a while, "Bewitched's" iconography becomes an arena for showbiz anxieties and power struggles. We see screen tests of actresses attempting Elizabeth Montgomery's trademark nose-twitch. Jack realizes that the Darrin role could be cursed: On the original show, Dick York replaced Dick Sergeant as Darrin "and nobody noticed!"

Playing Samantha, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) isn't just new to acting but the human race. She recently abandoned wherever it is witches live (Mount Olympus?) to experience life as a mortal. She only agrees to do the show because she's smitten with Jack as a flawed mess who needs her.

Bewitched loves paying homage to the show, presenting clips from the original black-and-white pilot and occasionally bringing kitschy collectibles to life. But Ephron proves a Muggle at heart, at a loss with the characters' mystical natures, despite the expensive special effects at her disposal. We never get a good look at Isabel on her flying broomstick, and magic mostly seems an excuse for product placement. Isabel's father (Michael Caine) pops up at Bed, Bath & Beyond or in the guise of the Jolly Green Giant and other brand mascots at the supermarket.

Ferrell's reactions prove far more compelling than the magical plot points. The victim of an overly effective love spell, he prances around like a smitten ninny. When real romance blossoms and Isabel reveals her witchy nature, he screams with horror and cries, "Am I going to get pregnant?" Ferrell's outsized emotions reliably boost the stakes in tame situations.

Isabel's sense of wonder at human affairs owes a lot to films like Splash, but Kidman brings a charming naiveté to the role. Relaxed and girlish, she seems to be doing an affectionate - or subtly savage - imitation of Meg Ryan, but she makes the cute quirks seem fresh. Kidman's wrathful moment when Isabel stands up for herself helps to undermine the anti-feminist subtext of the original show, in which a virtually omnipotent and ageless female sublimated her power as a suburban homemaker to a fuddy-duddy ad executive.

For Jack and Isabel, the line between the old series and reality gets increasingly blurred, but the rules never become clear. Steve Carell's live-wire impersonation of Paul Lynde, who played Uncle Arthur on the TV series, nearly redeems the last act, but Ephron fails to successfully mine the post-modern possibilities of her script.

Instead, she emphasizes the love story, falling back on the movie courtship clichés she's helped set in stone. Isabel and Jack meet cute - he sees her twitching nose through the shelves at a bookstore. They picnic at scenic locales and dance to famous songs (like Steve Lawrence's cheesy version of the "Bewitched" theme). They call each other names in a comical argument. A montage sums up their relationship. They'd probably end with a climactic chase to the airport, if Isabel couldn't already fly a broomstick.

Like the more satisfying Brady Bunch Movie, Bewitched will be a short-term crowd-pleaser and a long-range bad example, inspiring more cinematic sitcoms, rather than discrediting them. Given that Bewitched employs so many talented actors (including many "Daily Show" alums) and such a complicated premise for modest results, you have to wonder: Would writing and selling original ideas be so much harder?

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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