Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In the Twinkling of an Eye -- or the Twitching of a Nose

Jack (Will Ferrell): So were your parents in the witch business?

Isabel (Nicole Kidman): Both of them. My mother fixed the 1986 World Series.

I had pretty high hopes when I heard that a movie based on the Bewitched TV series was being made. I was a fan of that show when I was a child, and I have admired Nicole Kidman (who was tapped to play Elizabeth Montgomery's role) for many years.

Now, I'm not really a fan of movies based on TV shows. Occasionally, they turn out OK, but mostly I have found them to be huge disappointments. It's fair to say that my enthusiasm for the Bewitched movie was tempered.

But I like Nicole Kidman in much the same way that I liked the original Samantha. I thought she was a good fit for the role.

You know what? I still do. I had other issues with the movie. So did film critic Roger Ebert, who conceded that he didn't watch much prime–time TV and had never seen an episode of Bewitched. "When you see 500 movies a year," he wrote, "you don't have a lot of left–over yearning for watching television. In the evenings, you involve yourself in more human pursuits."

Ebert found the movie "tolerably entertaining," and so did I. Since much of it incorporated scenes from episodes of the original series — sometimes word for word, as I recall — I gather he would have found the series entertaining as well. But he had the same problem with the movie that I had — it threw together too many scenes from episodes of the series that had no unifying theme or context — other than whatever flimsy pretense was used to loosely link things together.

"Many of its parts work," he observed, "although not together. Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman are funny and likable, but they're in a plot that doesn't allow them to aim for the same ending with the same reason. It's one of those movies where you smile and laugh and are reasonably entertained, but you get no sense of a mighty enterprise sweeping you along with its comedic force. There is not a movie here. Just scenes in search of one."

That seems like fair criticism to me.

As I say, I like Kidman, and I think she was a good choice for Samantha. But there was some real chemistry between Elizabeth Montgomery and the first Darrin (Dick York) that transcended the transition to the second Darrin (Dick Sargent), who clearly was never as comfortable with Samantha as his predecessor, midway through the series' run.

That was material for one of those inside baseball kind of jokes in the movie. Ferrell observed that, on the TV show, Darrin had been so insignificant that the producers changed actors playing the role midway through the series' run — "and no one noticed!" But the series wouldn't have survived for four more years if not for the reservoir of good will the show's fans had for Montgomery. If she was even remotely convincing in her relationship with the second Darrin, the viewers would accept him without question. She was, and they did.

And the movie needed to be mindful of that. The movie wouldn't work if there wasn't the same kind of chemistry between Samantha and Darrin as there had been on the TV show — and there wasn't. Kidman and Ferrell could read the same lines that Montgomery and York did 40 years earlier, even re–create entire scenes, but they wouldn't work without the chemistry.

Kidman needed a different Darrin. I like Ferrell, too, but he needed a different Samantha. As Ebert observed, they were never really on the same page.

And I wasn't particularly wild about the supporting cast, either. For me, Michael Caine never really worked as Samantha's father (played by Maurice Evans in the TV show). And I had some trouble accepting Steve Carell as Uncle Arthur. I suppose that really was a tough one to cast, though. I mean, who could improve on Paul Lynde?

But my real problem was with Shirley MacLaine as Endora, the role played by Agnes Moorehead on TV. Now, I admire much of the work MacLaine has done over the years, but, frankly, I have found her recent work to be a little too flamboyant, and she really let her freak flag fly in "Bewitched." Not that Moorehead wasn't a little over the top at times; the role certainly called for some of that. But MacLaine was a little too over the top for me.

So, what we were left with was, as Ebert observed, an entertaining big–screen homage to a beloved TV series — but nothing that seemed likely to spawn a "Bewitched 2." I doubt that very many people in the audience left the theaters in 2005 hoping that a sequel would be coming along in 2006 that would let them know how things were working out between the new Samantha and Darrin.

Sadly, it is what I had been conditioned to expect — from previous attempts to make successful TV series into movies. Perhaps a little better than most, and, to be fair, "Bewitched" the movie did have some elements of creativity that the others did not. So it showed flashes of what might have been. I hoped for better.

I didn't get it.