Nora Ephron’s attempt to reconceive the standard TV-to-bigscreen adaptation goes bizarrely haywire here, spinning out of control like a runaway broomstick. Burdened by its show-within-a-movie-about-a-show structure, “Bewitched” suffers from its sheer peculiarity as well as a lack of chemistry (or alchemy, for that matter) between leads Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. Despite the occasional grudging moment of strange magic thanks to Ferrell’s antics and the large, talented but wholly squandered supporting cast, whatever initial box office curiosity exists should give way to DVD banishment once word-of-mouth casts its spell.
Although the idea of finding a fresh way to tackle such material is admirable, what finally emerges is a film that has about three different movies in it — “Splash”-type fish out of water? Hollywood romance? Down-on-his-luck actor gets magical career help? — and that’s unable to settle on any of them.
Isabel (Kidman) is a real-life witch who yearns to be a normal person, though she hasn’t quite mastered not employing magic to tidy up. Setting up house in Hollywood, her womanizing warlock dad (Michael Caine, always welcome, though put to much better use in “Batman Begins”) warns that she’ll miss her powers.
Soon, however, Isabel stumbles into Jack (Ferrell), a neurotic movie star coming off a major flop and in the midst of a nasty marital breakup — problems that are forcing him to consider slumming in television. (“Bewitched” won’t have the same effect on Ferrell, but it’s hard to resist pointing out that two or three more misfires of this scale might.)
Jack’s squirrelly agent (Jason Schwartzman) brings him a sitcom remake of “Bewitched,” but to avoid the Darrin syndrome — that is, being so much the second banana that they could change actors practically without notice — he insists on selecting an unknown as Samantha. Enter Isabel, who can do that nose-crinkling thing Elizabeth Montgomery made famous, and, in her new-to-town naivete, takes the job mostly because she has a crush on Jack.
Actually being a witch, it turns out, means not having to think much when you’re asked to improvise. Alas, though, the producers’ decision to highlight Jack means that he freely steps all over Isabel’s lines, which she eventually discovers, throwing a monkey wrench in their budding off-set romance. And despite all that, she still ends up testing higher with focus groups.
As written by director Ephron and her sister Delia, pic exhibits a fondness for the original series but doesn’t click as a romance — in part because the miscast Ferrell’s character is such a self-absorbed boor it’s hard to fathom what Isabel sees in him. Even the narrative timeline gets confusing, as the series is said to be taping a second episode after it seems (or at least feels) like it’s been on the air for months.
In terms of Kidman, her latest nose-centric role won’t make anyone forget “The Hours.” Playing Isabel as a wide-eyed waif, in fact, makes her mostly uninteresting, with more of a spark coming from Kristin Chenoweth (a more beguiling witch herself in “Wicked”) as her feisty neighbor.
Then again, there are lots of potentially funny people with not much to do, including “The Daily Show’s” Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, and Shirley MacLaine as the hammy actress playing Samantha’s mom. Yet whatever charm Ephron brought to “Sleepless in Seattle,” the magic’s gone here, lost amid a pace that not-so-magically causes time to slow down in the second act.
“Bewitched” does attempt to make use of trappings from the series, including its jaunty theme crooned by Steve Lawrence. There’s even one particularly intriguing act of magic, as Isabel causes time to rewind so she can erase the unforeseen consequences of a wayward spell.
Watching the movie run backward, though, only spurs reflection on whether it should have kept unspooling in reverse a little further — all the way back to the development stage.