Nora Ephron's "Bewitched" is the kind of low-key comedy that somehow, in the transition from idea to production, got pumped up until most of the wit was squeezed out of it. Ephron, who wrote the near-perfect "When Harry Met Sally," who wrote and directed the very sweet "Sleepless in Seattle," and even was cowriter of the powerful drama "Silkwood," now finds herself here having to deal as cowriter and director with the one-note comedian Will Ferrell, who couldn't be more wrong for the film.
The story is perfectly serviceable: A has-been actor, Jack Wyatt (Ferrell), coming off a string of disasters, finally gets another chance with a new version of the old TV show "Bewitched." Unwilling to take a chance on a known actress for the Samantha role, someone who might upstage him, he finds the lovely Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) wiggling her nose in a bookstore and hires her for the series. What he doesn't know is that she actually is a witch, now trying for a 'normal' life in Los Angeles. The stage is set for, well, witchy comedy and, of course, romance. Ten years ago it would have been a perfect vehicle for the lighthearted Tom Hanks, who blossomed under Ephron's direction. Today it might be any of a number of comic actors who can master the believability of a quiet reaction shot, the ones who can cede the screen when necessary to their partners; think of Vince Vaughn (who also happens to be tall enough to play against Kidman without elevator shoes).
Too bad. What we get is an hour and a half of Will Ferrell shtick, from double takes to slapstick pratfalls, intruded into every possible scene. And played against the calmly understated Kidman, who uses a light, breathy voice that some have said she channeled from Marilyn Monroe - no matter, it works - he only comes off as heavy, clumsy and obnoxious.
The film also comes with Michael Caine as Kidman's priapic warlock father, who shows up periodically to warn her against 'normal' life; and Shirley MacLaine, playing the actress who plays Samantha's mother in the show, but who also happens to be a witch. (How come she and Caine don't recognize each other in the course of the film?) And near the end there is a cameo by Steve Carell, of The Daily Show, playing Uncle Arthur in a note-for-note rendering of Paul Lynde. It's helpful to watch old pros like Caine and MacLaine at work; it eases the pain of watching Mr. Ferrell.
Ephron is not known for exciting camera work; the film is about a television show, but much of the rest of it is shot as though it is also on television. On the other hand, the script is so straightforward (written by Ephron with her sister Delia) that it leaves no room for improvisation. Still, the magic of the witchcraft is made to look so pedestrian it hardly seems like magic at all.