There is a place for snarky meta-commentary on pop culture, but that place is clearly not at the hands of anyone named Ephron. Sisters Nora (who directed) and Delia (who cowrote with Nora) have concocted an evil brew of misogynist tripe, faux-ironic nostalgia, and painfully false romantic comedy that purports to be an “edgy,” modern updating of a 1960s sitcom. But the Ephrons seem not to have grasped that TV’s Bewitched was a desperate last stand of the 1950s, one final attempt to stifle the power women wield that men find frightening, the power that was finally busting out of its girdle when the sitcom debuted in 1964. (It was no coincidence that Betty Friedan had published her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique just the year before.) Instead of using their 21st-century “update” to stand such outlandish and outdated notions on their ear — or on their twitching nose — the Ephrons have actually managed to be more anti-gal power than the material that inspired them.
“I can’t be normal,” Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Bigelow whines here, “I’m a witch.” Despite Kidman’s (The Interpreter, Birth) best attempts to be charming and lovable, Isabel is one of the most abysmal and discouraging female characters to appear in a Hollywood flick in ages. There’s no reason for her self-hatred of what is her own normality, her natural witchiness. She clearly enjoys magic — whether she’s snapping a cute Volkswagen Beetle into existence for herself or sneaking a tarot card through a credit-card reader at a store checkout. Why she needs to shop when she can just snap cute consumer goods into existence is a question the film ignores, except that Isabel doesn’t want to be a witch anymore (unless it’s plot-convenient or might get a laugh). Cuz it’s not “normal.” Whatever that means. We get no hint of what the witchy world is like, but if it’s full of suave charmers like Isabel’s dad, Nigel (Michael Caine: Batman Begins, Around the Bend), how bad could it be? We have no idea what images of life as a Muggle Isabel has been exposed to that would make her want to join our world of quiet desperation and no magic, but that is indeed what she wants.
But wait! There’s more that she wants, more to make a female moviegoer with any kind of self-respect moan in anguish. It’s not enough that the Ephrons have given us, as a would-be superadorable romantic-comedy heroine, a powerful woman who would willingly smother her own power. Isabel also wants a man to fall in love with, which is fine on its face, but it’s not just any man she’s looking for. No, she wants someone special: “I want a man who needs me because he’s a complete total mess.” She wants to be mommy… but not a magic mommy — she just wants some screwed-up loser she can “fix.” Until she meets him, in washed-up actor Jack Wyatt, played by the odious Will Ferrell (Kicking & Screaming, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), who could not be less suited to the role of “romantic-comedy hero” if he were actually covered in excrement and appearing in a smell-o-vision movie. Now she wants him, now she doesn’t — the machinations of the charmless, mechanic plot that push these two together awkwardly and pull them apart even more clumsily, until it’s time to throw them together again, end up infantilizing both women and men… but women get the worst of it.
The “irony,” the fake “hipness” comes into play as actor Jack is trying to put together a sitcom remake of, you guessed it, the 60s series Bewitched. And he wants Isabel to be his costar, because she twitches her nose in such perfect imitation of Elizabeth Montgomery, and also because Isabel is such a moron — she’s supposed to be “naive,” but she comes across as actually mentally retarded — that she won’t upstage him. All the layers of meta are so inexpertly stacked that one wishes we could cast an invisibility spell over the whole mess.
Banging one’s head against the wall eventually becomes requisite. If I didn’t know this was written and directed by women I’d never have believed a man wasn’t the perpetrator, because Isabel is a portrait of modern femi-ninny-ty at its absolute worst: she’s idiotic, wishy-washy, and subject to wild swings of “darling” irrationality. And the film’s “message” is enough to send anyone who feels a little different heading for the Prozac: Don’t be yourself: yourself is not normal. Yourself is bad and is something to be gotten over.