For those purists who would rank remakes as the eighth deadly sin, the new “Bedazzled” may seem nothing short of sacrilegious. But mainstream auds will likely grant special dispensation to Harold Ramis’ spirited reprise of Stanley Donen’s 1967 cult-fave farce. To be sure, it helps a bit that most ticketbuyers can’t (or won’t) make comparisons, since the original pic — starring and dreamed up by Dudley Moore and the late, great Peter Cook, with the latter penning the script — hasn’t been easily accessible, even in well-stocked vidstores, for several years. But it helps more that this latest comic update of the Faust legend is pretty damn funny on its own terms. Originally slated for summer opening, Fox release is positioned to post good to excellent fall B.O. numbers and should ring up sinfully good homevid biz.
The ’67 version cast Moore as a lovesick short-order cook who pines for a statuesque co-worker (the ineffably stunning Eleanor Bron) and sells his soul to a sardonic Satan (Cook) for seven wishes. Naturally, the devil is in the details: Each time Moore’s character makes a wish, he stumbles into a loophole positioned by the Prince of Darkness.
Ramis’ remake, which the director co-scripted with Peter Tolan (“Analyze This”) and Larry Gelbart, retains the original’s sketch-comedy structure, but recycles only the bare bones of the Cook-Moore plot. The 2000 version is louder, broader and much, much bigger. Indeed, one particularly lavish scene, set in hell, looks like it cost more than the entire budget of the ’67 comedy.
Even so, much of the writing is genuinely clever, and the really big laughs are ignited with crowd-pleasing frequency. No one will ever accuse this “Bedazzled” of excessive sophistication. (Not that the original was all that subtle: Cook, Moore and Donen gleefully employed Raquel Welch as a bouncy, bosomy sight gag.)
This time, the hero of the piece is appreciably more upscale, but no less hopelessly lovesick. Maladroit Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) is at ease only while wearing a telephone headset at work, where he’s a tech-support nerd. In a moment of desperate longing for Alison (Frances O’Connor), a lovely co-worker, Elliot vows that he “would give anything to have that woman” in his life. Unfortunately, his plaintive words summon the ultimate femme fatale, a shapely Satan played by Elizabeth Hurley.
Adhering to literary and cinematic tradition, this smoothly seductive Princess of Darkness makes Elliot an offer he can’t refuse. In return for his signature on a contract that guarantees her ultimate claim on his immortal soul, she grants him seven wishes. Elliot jumps at what seems like a foolproof chance — seven foolproof chances, actually — to win the woman he loves. Each time he makes a wish, however, the Devil springs a trap. Very quickly, a pattern emerges: Elliot wishes to become a dream lover; the Devil transforms his dream into a nightmare.
Elliot wants to be rich, powerful — and married to Alison. He becomes a Colombian drug lord who’s betrayed by his underlings — and cuckolded by his wife. Later, Elliot wants to be a superstar athlete. In the locker room, however, Alison exposes his — ahem! — shortcomings. Elliot wishes to become president of the United States. The devil turns him into Abraham Lincoln, then drops him into opening night at the Ford Theater. And so it goes.
As Elliot segues from one incarnation to the next, “Bedazzled” emerges as a star vehicle in the very best sense of the term. Fraser has had ample opportunities to display his talents for dreamy romantic comedy (“Still Breathing”), seriocomic heroics (“The Mummy”), graceful slapstick (“George of the Jungle”), edge-of-madness innocence (“The Scout”), blissed-out wackiness (“Dudley Do-Right”) and compassionate hunkiness (“Gods and Monsters”). But “Bedazzled” gives him a different kind of showcase, one that allows him to demonstrate his prodigious versatility by running the gamut from sweetly ingenuous to aggressively dorky, from cartoonishly boisterous (most memorably, as a frightfully huge basketball player) to suave. Fraser constantly surprises and occasionally amazes.
Exceptionally well cast as Fraser’s foil, Hurley fully validates the risk of gender-bending casting with a wickedly witty performance. At her frequent best, she comes off as a lip-smacking, feline caricature of Joan Collins. Hurley takes an almost unholy delight in her own naughtiness, and her saving grace is her generosity: She permits the aud to have even more fun than she does.
In her first major U.S.-made pic, Aussie thesp Frances O’Connor (“Kiss or Kill,” “Mansfield Park”) manages to impress simply by not allowing the top-billed leads to completely overshadow her. Better still, she’s able to demonstrate her own considerable range as various dream girls in Elliot’s orbit. Throughout the interlocking episodes that illustrate Elliot’s wishful thinking, O’Connor is first among equals in a repertory company that includes Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein and Toby Huss.
Tech package is appropriately glossy, with pricey f/x enhancing quite a few jokes. (Even the overblown hell sequence is good for a few giggles.) Insistently upbeat finale plays like an afterthought — or, worse, like a last-minute substitution for something marginally edgier. By that point, however, most ticketbuyers will feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth with this briskly paced pic.
Closing credits offer “special thanks” to Stanley Donen. But Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are acknowledged in a more stealthy fashion. It would spoil the gag to say more than this: Pay close attention during a scene in which Hurley appears with a pair of ferocious pets.