As needless films versions of "classic" '60s TV series go, Nora Ephron's Bewitched is even worse than endeavors such as I, Spy and The Beverly Hillbillies, because this one actually seemed promising.
Will Ferrell stars as Jack Wyatt, a once-popular film actor now playing Darren in a TV remake of the original Bewitched series. Looking to cast an unknown as Samantha, he stumbles upon Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), pert, pretty, good at twitching her nose, and, unbeknownst to Jack, an honest-to-god witch herself. Isabel, fed up with her life of spells and sorcery, only wants to be "normal" - pretty much a hopeless cause for an actress living in L.A. - yet takes the job regardless, and finds it mighty hard to give up her magical ways when Jack's enormous ego begins to bring out her witchy side.
This premise is rather clever; it pays homage to the Bewitched brand name while also turning the whole, tired concept of turning TV shows into Hollywood blockbusters on its head. And for a while, this new Bewitched is a reasonably sharp Hollywood satire, with some good jabs at the shamelessness of the entertainment industry and the shallowness of those within it. Ephron, co-writing the script with her sister, Delia, throws a few witty one-liners out there, and her cast of seasoned pros delivers them with punch. Even during the first diverting half-hour, the movie is never quite as funny as you'd like, but it's pleasant enough, and it's certainly rife with comedic possibilities.
Yet Bewitched winds up so frustrating that you nearly forget about the fun you had at the beginning. Nora Ephron, being Nora Ephron, is determined, come hell or high water, to turn the movie into another of her unbearably squishy romantic comedies, a Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail with a supernatural bent, and the results are nearly disastrous. It's not just that Kidman and Ferrell possess nothing in the way or romantic or comedic chemistry; the change in the film's tone - from insider-smart to pure schmaltz - is so radical that it forces both performers to completely abandon the characters they established at the onset. Kidman begins the film as an amusing airhead with a breathy voice - a strawberry-blond Marilyn with an even lower IQ - and turns into a feminist schemer in record time, while Ferrell, his egotism a touching counterpoint to Jack's incredibly low self-esteem, becomes a screaming, needy putz who can't stand the attention lavished on his female co-star. Bewitched asks its audience to start rooting for Isabel and Jack as a romantic couple at the exact moment we stop laughing at them.
By then, though, you may have stopped laughing at just about everyone. A good sign that a movie no longer has any idea what it's doing comes when all of the amsuing peripheral figures start to disappear, and in this case, enjoy your time spent with Jason Schwartzman and Kristen Chenoweth and Stephen Colbert while you can; as soon as their characters no longer aid the Ephrons' romantic plotline, the sisters all but forget about them. Similarly wasted are Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, who would, theoretically, make for a wonderful pair of foils, and Carole Shelley and Steve Carrell, who play Aunt Clara and Uncle Arthur as appropriately broad cartoons. These are all funny, talented people; why are their contributions being trashed?
Because, to be blunt, Nora Ephron is a sap who insists on turning every one of her movies into When Harry Met freakin' Sally ... . See if this sounds familiar: By the end of the film, Jack is miserable over letting the love of his life slip away, and finally musters up the courage to go after her. Some overused romantic pop ballad from the '40s plays on the soundtrack while Jack attempts to catch up to Isabel, and by the time he does, giving her his I-never-knew-how-much-I-wanted-you-'til-you-were-gone speech, Jack's mixture of pluck and almost ridiculous self-centeredness has completely won her over. Turning Bewitched into a sugar-coated Meg Ryan movie may be considered magical to some, but that kind of alchemy I, for one, could do without.
GEORGE A. ROMERO'S LAND OF THE DEAD
George A. Romero's Land of the Dead is exactly what you want a low-rent zombie movie to be: speedy, nasty, and violent as all get-out. There's something marvelously reassuring about gore-meister Romero returning to his flesh-eating roots here, and although his verbal attempts at social satire are flat and pretty obvious - within the first five minutes, a character says of the undead "It's like they're pretending to be alive," to which our hero (Simon Baker) responds with a world-weary, "Is that what we're doing? Pretending to be alive?" - at least he's making the attempt; Land of the Dead is strong and serious, and its resistance to CGI effects is cause for celebration enough. (The makeup effects are sensationally grotesque.) There are so many good ideas floating around - the zombies' fascination with fireworks, their hesitancy around water, Dennis Hopper's corporate bastard never letting go of the bourbon on the rocks, even when he's running for his life - that you can easily ignore the ones that don't quite play. Plus, any zombie movie that casts John Leguizamo among its heroes is predisposed to entertain; as usual, he chomps the scenery with a relish that man-eating meanies could only dream of.
HERBIE FULLY LOADED
If you can get in the right spirit - the spirit of 1968 - Herbie Fully Loaded is perfectly acceptable family entertainment. Like most of Disney's live-action works, the movie itself is barely more realistic than a cartoon, but it's agreeably goofy, and a lot of quick-witted performers give it some flavor. Here, the magical Volkswagon Bug gets a 21st Century make-over, yet the movie itself remains defiantly dated; a Hanna-Barbera "Sproiiiing!" sound effect greets every moment of overt physical comedy, and the fact that the characters' naïve treatment of Herbie's lifelike nature as "just one of those things" is charming - no undue time is wasted trying to make this movie believable, nor should there be. Although the press makes sure we're not missing a moment of Lindsay Lohan's public meltdown, it's to the actress' credit that she remains a lovely, naturalistic screen presence, and Michael Keaton, Matt Dillon, Breckin Meyer, Justin Long, Cheryl Hines, and Thomas Lennon seem actually connected to what they're doing; the movie is just earnest enough to keep you from laughing at it. Yes, every other movie currently in theatres is either a sequel or a remake or some amalgam of the two. (Have you noticed a theme among the three flicks being reviewed this week?) But if we must endure the continual updating of entertainment from our past, it could be a lot worse - it has been a lot worse - than Herbie Fully Loaded.