No Nicer Witch

Once you notice that Nora Ephron directed and, with her sister Delia, co-wrote the new Bewitched, you can begin to brace yourself for a level of smartness unexpected in a transplant from the small screen to the big. Unexpected, for example, in the recent Honeymooners, which I can't bring myself to see, or the forthcoming Dukes of Hazzard. Not at all a reasonable facsimile of the Sixties sitcom about the witchy housewife with the twitchy nose, it is rather a behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire about an attempted revival of said sitcom. (The background, for viewers too young or too old for the TV show, is filled in with archival clips therefrom and bits of educational commentary: "Gosh, I used to have the biggest crush on Elizabeth Montgomery when I was ten years old.") This angle of entry affords the critic an occasion to trot out an adjective such as "self-reflexive" or a prefix such as "meta-," if he feels comfortable with such terms; and it affords Ephron, a woman with her nose to the wind and her ear to the ground, an occasion to take jabs at the barrel-scraping creative poverty in modern Hollywood and at its needy stars and their currying handlers.

The fresh dynamic of this nonremake, or meta-remake, posits a declining middle-aged male star of the big screen, still kicking himself for the decision to shoot Last Year in Katmandu in black-and-white, and now looking to regain a toehold on the small screen, yet so fearful of getting eclipsed in the part of the simpering husband, Darrin, that he insists his on-screen wife, Samantha, be an unknown. He must never, on the advice of his agent, be perceived as the Mayor of Pussytown but always the Sheriff of Ballsville. Inasmuch as this nonremake is at the same time a kind of remake after all, the discovered unknown will naturally turn out to be a bona fide witch ("She's incredibly dialled in," exclaims one of the producers at the audition), who just wants to escape the influence of her warlock father, swear off witchcraft for good, get a job like a normal person and lead a normal life: "Your life is total instant gratification, Daddy." (Daddy's tireless skirt-chasing permits Ephron, jumping into a never-ending fight, to take some jabs also at older-men-younger-women configurations. I wish I could quote with precision the line from the young hottie who, under an impromptu spell from a postmenopausal witch, tells the horny old warlock that, yes, she'll go to bed with him, but then the next morning she won't get ninety-nine percent of his jokes and she'll go on and on about wanting to open her own aerobics studio.) Our heroine's sheltered upbringing -- she was forbidden as a child to watch Bewitched -- has not remotely prepared her for the realities of normal life, where it is easy to backslide on her no-more-sorcery vow when it comes to hooking up the VCR to the TV, and where total instant gratification is exactly what a normal person craves and what a Hollywood celebrity, of all types of people, comes closest to achieving. Nicole Kidman's increasingly doll-like demeanor, it must be admitted, is less of a handicap in a role less human; and in truth her expressions of glee and wonderment over the littlest things closely approximate the innocence of the extraterrestrial. Either that or (improving on her performance from last summer) a Stepford Wife programmed for pep.

Brightly photographed by John Lindley, leavened with judicious special effects, cleverly constructed for changes of pace and changes of course, the film truly does correct the imbalance in the old TV show, giving the male character equal weight, or at any rate equal attention, with the female. But the cost of making him an object of ridicule -- and of casting Will Ferrell, that master of overstatement, in the part -- is to diminish him as a subsequent object of romance. And bit by bit, as the film shifts from jabs to clinches, it loses some of its distance -- some of its difference -- from the TV series, whose knowledge of witchcraft (despite Daddy's disapproval) is by and large validated. Or more accurately, swallowed whole. In the final tally, the film can be said to have delivered everything it promised: glib, flip, hip observations on power, illusion, loss of self, and other common ingredients in romantic relations. Everything it promised, and more. Not as much, let's say, as the witchcraft comedy nonpareil, Bell, Book, and Candle. About as much, maybe, as I Married a Witch. A lot more, certainly, than the wisp-of-smoke sitcom from which it takes its name.

Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love, in faded color and with unstable camera, details the youthful indiscretions of two English girls of vastly different backgrounds, a horse-riding, cello-playing aristocrat on suspension from school ("Apparently I'm a bad influence on people") and a freckle-faced commoner who, together with her born-again ex-con brother, runs a Yorkshire pub having the same name as the cellist's practice piece: The Swan. The one introduces the other to Nietzsche, Edith Piaf, magic mushrooms, and the love that dare not speak its name (except after ingestion of magic mushrooms). Despite intimations of a drastic and dramatic turn of events ("In France, crimes of passion are forgiven" and "If you leave me, I'll kill you" and the like), the plot settles for the gentle curve of sadder-but-wiser. Or from the moviegoer's point of view, sadder possibly, but none the wiser. Nathalie Press, a Sarah Polley type, corners the acting highlights, mimicking the sexual gyrations of her latest boyfriend and imitating Mercedes McCambridge's devil-possession dubbing from The Exorcist. Emily Blunt, a Robin Tunney type, monopolizes the nudity.

Heights, the directorial debut of Chris Terrio, offers a small-world view of New York, where everyone is separated not by the proverbial six degrees but by more like two. A male ex-lover of a bisexual photographer called Benjamin Stone ("Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Benjamin Stone -- the Holy Trinity") has arrived from London to research a Vanity Fair piece on the photographer's ex-lovers; one of these is the closeted fiancé of a neophyte photographer who happens to be the daughter of another of those rumored exes, a Broadway diva; the diva, currently teaching and rehearsing Macbeth, is also auditioning and flirting with an aspiring young actor who lives in the same building as the daughter and who (this would spoil the surprise if it actually came as a surprise) is having a clandestine affair with the fiancé. Were the tight weave not sufficiently suffocating already, the film retains the sound, if not the space limitations, of the stage. (Amy Fox, in collaboration with Terrio, adapted her own play.) It is perhaps fitting, then, that the ensemble cast should be dominated by the prima-donna persona of Glenn Close, a character so consumed by acting that no emotion, however honest, can escape her art. (You can't tell where the fictional actress leaves off and the real one takes over. Or to say it another way, you can't tell where the real one overacts.) Then, too, a cast of Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, John Light, et al., is easily dominated. George Segal, safely out of range of Close, has a funny bit as a rabbi doing his duty in the line of premarital counseling.

Après Vous is a French gâteau of cloying overelaboration, relying on its characters' inexplicable behavior to prolong its plot's instantaneous tedium. A hurrying passer-by, after hours in a public park, stops to save a would-be suicide and thereafter goes to infinite lengths to help him out, giving him a place to stay even if it means displacing his own girlfriend, driving him through the night to intercept a posted suicide note, getting him an unsuitable job as a sommelier, and conspiring to reunite him with his inamorata (one of the legion of unusual-looking French leading ladies, the vaguely goosey Sandrine Kiberlain). The direction of Pierre Salvadori, scarcely a newcomer to the screen but a new name over here, is not without its felicities, as witness the well-timed episode, with shrewd use of off-screen space, in which our meddlesome Samaritan tips the inamorata to the infidelity of her current fiancé. And Daniel Auteuil is an actor of prodigious range: his semi-paralytic drunk scene is so out-of-character that it almost appears to have been appropriated from his co-star, José Garcia. I seem to remember remarking or thinking, with regard to The Closet or some other, that it's interesting to watch this fastidious virtuoso throw himself into slopwork. I would not want to make a habit of remarking it. Moviegoers with a taste for Gallic comedies are advised not to let Happily Ever After slip out of town while making plans for this one.

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