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Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Bewitched (2005)

Director: Nora Ephron
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell
Domestic Box Office: $63,313,159

I would be genuinely curious to know how a movie like Bewitched could have a production budget of $85 million. A rather large portion of the film takes place on a soundstage, telling a story about the behind the scenes goings on of a television show. One would think that that would cut down on the costs at least a little, but maybe not enough to make up for the cost of the CGI involved in all the "witchery." I would also be curious to know how the decision was made to make Bewitched a summer release instead of spring or early autumn. The summer season is what it is because it's full of films that appeal to teenagers who are out of school and have time to spend at the multiplex. The presence of Will Ferrell alone - particularly Ferrell in a performance which majorly tones down the oversized comic persona he delivers in his best known roles - wasn't going to draw the younger crowd to a film based on a sitcom that went off the air in 1972, and in fact that presence of Ferrell (who, in 2005, had only just started to take steps towards branching out from broad comedy) might have been detrimental to the film's ability to appeal to an older crowd who might have been lured in by nostalgia. From a marketing perspective, Bewitched is like an ill-conceived experiments, though as a film it actually isn't all that bad.

The world of Bewitched the film is one in which the TV series "Bewitched" existed and so do actual witches, though the rest of the world is unaware of the existence of real witches and some real witches are unaware of the existence of the TV series "Bewitched." Into this world comes Isabel (Nicole Kidman), a witch who wants to stop relying on her powers to accomplish everything for her and start living like a normal person, and who is thrilled when she gets an actual job after being spotted in a bookstore by Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a film star who is trying to salvage his spiraling career by starring in a remake of "Bewitched." Jack is drawn to Isabel both because of her resemblance to original "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery and because he believes that her inexperience as an actor will ensure that she doesn't upstage him, as he's helped to engineer the remake so that the focus is more on Darrin than on Samantha. When Isabel learns that she's being used, she uses her powers to get even with Jack, only to fall for him and be left wondering whether his feelings for her are genuine or just the result of magic.

Written by Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, and Adam McKay, Bewitched is kind of interesting to watch just for what it's intentionally trying to say and for what it unintentionally ends up saying. What it's trying to do is make a point about how women in the film and television industry are treated as glorified set-dressing rather than people with creative contributions to make, and how women have to fight in order to make their voices heard and valued. The first point is made through the whole conception of the "Bewitched" remake, with the premise transformed to make it a vehicle to showcase the actor playing Darrin and with the intention of minimizing the role of Samantha as much as possible. They envision Samantha as smiling serenely, wiggling her nose to advance the plot, but mostly as being silent - the crisis in the film occurs when Isabel overhears Jack and his agent talking and congratulating themselves on having tricked Isabel into being on the show without having any actual lines. The second point is made after Isabel realizes the truth and decides to get even by stealing the show out from under Jack. She's a hit with the test audience and yet still not taken seriously by those behind the scenes as having something to contribute to the making of the show and finally grows so frustrated at being ignored that she screams, "I have something to say!" (something I imagine a lot of women in Hollywood have been tempted to do at one time or another) and then ends up getting fired for speaking her mind, something which the film tacitly acknowledges wouldn't happen to Jack in the same circumstances by having him tell her that he's had outbursts and stormed off of sets and been welcomed back "lots of times." Ultimately Jack gets Isabel her job back and it's once he, and everyone else following his lead, starts listening to her that the show begins to gel and take off.

At the same time, though, what the film is unintentionally doing is making a point about the world in general, and show business in particular, being easier to navigate if you're a certain kind of woman. Isabel is basically in possession of every kind of female privilege possible: she's white, she conforms to the conventionally accepted ideal of what's attractive in a woman, and she's rich (okay, technically she's magic, but the difference seems negligible; the point is that whatever she wants, she gets, and price isn't an issue). She's got a pretty sweet life with a minimal amount of effort to attain it, as things are just handed to her. And, yes (again), she's magic, but she's not using her magic when she's spotted by Jack. He literally just sees her and offers her the job, which wouldn't happen if she weren't white, thin, attractive, and youthful, and when she tells him that she's not an actress, he tells her that it doesn't matter. Even if she wants to make the effort and do the work, she doesn't actually have to. People will just give her the advantage because she fits this ideal, though the film doesn't acknowledge that even as it is telling a story about the disadvantages women face in the film and television industry, it's also telling a story about this unique kind of privilege that has allowed Isabel to break into the industry so easily in the first place.

Ultimately, Bewitched is more interesting than it is good, though I actually didn't hate it (and I say that as someone who really isn't much of a fan of Kidman). Certain things about it don't really work like, for instance, the film's decision to depict Isabel like she's an alien who has never had any interaction with humans before rather than as a person with supernatural powers, while other things are more successful, like Isabel's constantly declaring that she's through using her powers only to immediately come up against something that makes her break that resolution and insist that "that's the last time." I mean, really, wouldn't we all be like that? More often than not, though, Bewitched is more "cute" than anything - never especially funny or terribly clever and it never really feels like it has quite settled on an idea about how best to incorporate references to the original TV series into its own narrative. Bewitched isn't really as bad as its reputation, but it's definitely one of those movies that you watch and wonder "who was this even made for?"

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: No.

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