The thing I couldn’t quite figure out about Nora Ephron’s new film version of Bewitched was why Nicole Kidman, in the role of the pretty suburban witch, took as her model not the savvy but sly Elizabeth Montgomery of the original TV series but a breathless, wide-eyed innocent of the sort that Marilyn Monroe used to specialize in. Surely if being a witch, even a TV witch, means anything it must mean being really smart rather than really dumb? But in Miss Kidman’s conception of the part, her superpowers are not learned from years of poring over books of spells or hermetic literature. Instead, they are an uncovenanted gift, like Marilyn’s naughty-child sexuality. Like it too, they are at least as much of a nuisance to her as they are a means of getting what she wants. But that still doesn’t explain why she wants to renounce them. “I’m fed up with snapping my fingers and getting my way,” she says. Ye-e-e-s, and this is bad because…? Why, too, does the new Darrin (Will Ferrell) feel shocked and offended by her talents instead of thinking them cool?
Back in the days of the TV series (1964-1972) everyone understood the answer to that question, at least. Miss Montgomery’s Samantha was forbidden by Darrin from practicing witchcraft and pretended to submit to his prohibition because a husband — so, incredibly enough, did they believe back then — needed to feel he was king in his own castle, and that the power in the relationship belonged to him. A woman with the power not only to take care of herself but to alter reality at the twitch of a nose could hardly fit comfortably into the then-desirable role of the submissive wife. Yet “Bewitched” the TV series did as much as anything in the American popular culture to alter these archaic assumptions about marriage. Samantha never really sacrificed her powers for Darrin and domesticity, and the poor chump himself could hardly have been unaware of the fact. He was a pathetic wittol in the case of his wife’s infidelity with the always comic dark powers.
Thus the show took on an archetypal quality, like “The Honeymooners” only more so. For as feminist scholars have since reminded us, the historic associations of women with witchcraft are all bound up with the masculine fear of women’s power. Samantha Stevens was a sanitized but still powerful emblem of the emergence of those dark and long mistrusted powers into the dawn of a new feminist day. All of this is missing from the new movie. Where the lineage of the TV series ran, however circuitously, back to the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witchcraft of the 15th century, that of the film goes no further than to the comic book superhero and connects to nothing more interesting or culturally resonant than the adolescent power fantasies that have become Hollywood’s stock-in-trade in the post-revolutionary era.
That must be one reason for Miss Kidman’s innocence, which extends even to this witch’s delighted admiration for the witchcraft of microwaves and automatic sprinklers. In spite of Michael Caine’s droll turn as her father, we don’t know where she’s been up until now — though we do know that while there she has not only been kept away from the normal amenities of life and unfamiliar with popular vulgarisms but she has even been forbidden to watch the television version of “Bewitched.” In other words, it is the same Never Never Land or Planet Krypton where all comic superheroes come from. Or at least the ones with super-powers. As the recent Batman Begins reminds us, the man who must rely on knowledge and technique rather than super-strength or trans-specific powers to defeat his foes has his beginnings in a terrible knowledge. Surely, you would think, here must be a better model for a witch than the alien or mutant innocents of the comics?
But then that might risk striking a serious note that the movie clearly could not sustain. Though the writing, by Miss Ephron, her sister Delia and Adam McKay, is often sprightly and the jokes mostly better than those in the recent and disappointing Honeymooners, the triviality of the whole conceit overwhelms it. And Will Ferrell’s presence unbalances it in another way.
Miss Ephron’s big idea for a framing device is to have some network suits re-making the TV series and offering the part of Darrin to one Jack Wyatt (Mr. Ferrell), supposedly a big movie star who has had a couple of big flops. Wyatt condescends to take the part in a mere TV show on the understanding that he is to be the center of interest while the witchy wife, for whom he wants to cast an unknown, has barely a speaking role. The unknown, unknown to him, turns out to be a real — or rather a “real” — witch. Think of the comic possibilities!
But hang on a minute. Is it remotely plausible in any conceivable universe that even Jack Wyatt, obviously not the brightest bulb on the marquee, can imagine Darrin as the star of “Bewitched”? As he himself puts it: “I’m Darrin? They replaced Darrin in the original series and no one noticed!” Yet the film itself tries to get away with exactly the same impossibility, pouring Mr. Ferrell’s energetic mugging and over-the-top physical comedy into the mold of that inevitable nonentity, Darrin Stevens, just because he is a big star who can “open” a movie. His need to treat Bewitched as a vehicle for what seems to me at least his mostly unfunny clowning is the main reason for the film’s lack of any movie-witchcraft. It is also helps to explain the stunning irony of Miss Kidman’s re-conversion of this icon of feminist power back into one of 1950s-vintage submissive femininity.