We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The big-screen version of Bewitched has the same moral as its predecessor: You can’t change who you are. This adage is, naturally, embodied by Isabel (Nicole Kidman), the real-life discontented witch who ends up playing Samantha, the fictional discontented witch in the movie’s remake-within-a-remake of the 1964 TV series.
But let it also be a lesson to Will Ferrell, whose character is a bumbling but arrogant actor with whom Isabel falls in love—and yet another role that the beady-eyed comic was never meant to play. (Two more: Melinda and Melinda’s lovesick nebbish and Kicking & Screaming’s suburban patsy.) Ferrell’s Jack Wyatt may sound a bit like Ron Burgundy, the mustachioed Lothario whose affair with Christina Applegate’s newswoman in Anchorman was as entertainingly ridiculous as the cast’s wide lapels. But the self-absorbed Jack would never declare that he wants to be friends with Isabel’s heinie, and therein lies the problem: Unless his romantic life is played strictly for laughs, Ferrell will never stop being the kind of guy you regard as a weird, doughy friend.
And even though Bewitched is a Nora Ephron confection—both directed and co-written by Ms. When Harry Met Sally/ Sleepless in Seattle/ You’ve Got Mail—the buddy-boyfriend approach just doesn’t do. The script, also penned by Delia Ephron and Anchorman writer Adam McKay, does at least give an explanation of why the fetching Isabel would fall for Jack, an overexposed and generally disliked megastar whose last few movies have bombed: A born witch, she’s just moved to Los Angeles to renounce her powers and start a new, normal life. More than anything, Isabel wants to settle down with a man who needs her and, unlike her smooth-talking warlock father (Michael Caine), doesn’t always get what he wants.
Jack, meanwhile, has been persuaded by his agent, Richie (Jason Schwartzman), to slum in a television series in an attempt to resuscitate his career. Wanting to show Bewitched-within-Bewitched’s producers, in accordance with Richie’s wishes, that he’s no desperate wash-up but “the sheriff of Ballsville,” Jack makes a list of demands, including that “every Wednesday will be cake day!” and that an unknown be cast as Samantha, so he can be alone in the spotlight. Soon after, he spies Isabel wriggling her nose in a bookstore and talks her into taking the part. “I need you!” he says. “You need me,” she swoons.
Isabel’s falling for pretty much the first guy who speaks to her is unbelievable, yes, but not as much as Kidman’s breathy-bimbo spin on her character. With eyes wide and voice pitched to the sky, her Isabel never stops being Daddy’s widdle girl, even after the script has her get wise to (and, gosh darn it, angry about!) Jack’s scene-hogging—which becomes more frantic after Jack remembers Bewitched’s big joke: that Darrin was replaced—“and no one noticed!” A spoiled, pouty, and ultimately dim princess does not a charming leading lady make—even when paired with an equally spoiled and pouty paramour. Ferrell, at least, does get to go a little cowbell in Bewitched’s otherwise deflated second half, which finds Jack officially under Isabel’s vengeance-driven love spell: Suddenly skipping and spinning at the sight of her, Jack is later heartbroken when they have a tiff, and reduced to sobs (to the tune of “Everybody Hurts”) whenever he sees a janitor’s broom or some pointy-hatted trick-or-treaters.
As Bewitched delves further into romance, its function as tribute is largely abandoned. It’s only a small loss. Kidman absolutely has Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose twitch down cold, but otherwise the sitcom’s magic is correctly handled only by a few: Shirley MacLaine is a natural as Iris, the hammy actress cast as Samantha’s mother, Endora. Carole Shelley is also note-perfect as the fumbling Aunt Clara. And just like in Batman Begins, Caine is the classiest and most consistent comic relief here, whether popping up as the Gorton’s fisherman to give Isabel advice in the freezer aisle or temporarily forgetting about his daughter’s troubles to hit on Iris. The irony of the headliner’s upstaging is irresistible: Even if Ferrell manages to wring out a few laughs here or there, in the end, no one’s going to notice.
The characters in Saving Face also try to hide their true natures, but not because of lifestyle-shifting whims. Rather, two generations of Chinese-Americans find their choices restricted by cultural taboos, with the mother harshly judging her daughter even while being ostracized by her own parents for failing to adhere to their strict moral code.
Michelle Krusiec plays Wil, a young, single surgeon living in New York City whose widowed mother (Joan Chen) nags her to go to the mixers the Chinese community in Flushing holds every Friday night. Wil gamely attends, usually dressed in boxy button-ups and slacks, not in hope of meeting a nice young man but to better mask her secret: that she prefers the company of women. Her sexual orientation becomes more difficult to hide, however, when her mother, who had previously been living with Wil’s grandparents, shows up at her door with the intention of staying indefinitely. Mom’s upset, and Wil fears that the 48-year-old is also sick. (Actually, she’s pregnant, and her father, played by Jin Wang, is threatening to disown her unless she finds a husband before the baby is born.) At the same time, Wil is starting to fall for Vivian (Lynn Chen), an openly gay ballet dancer who gets increasingly frustrated by Wil’s reluctance to tell her family about the relationship.
For all its familial heaviness, writer-director Alice Wu’s debut displays a light touch. Krusiec’s Wil, hair always in a ponytail and shoulders slightly hunched, is a sassy but dutiful daughter and granddaughter, rolling her eyes at her family’s traditions while among friends but still doing her best to respect them. And she’s no smartass around the lovely and straightforward Vivian, either. Not quite bumbling but definitely lovestruck, the young doctor brings vulnerability and sweetness to a relationship you can’t help but root for.
A Chinese-American lesbian love story may sound like something targeted to a very specific audience, and Wu’s script certainly has some fun with Americans’ perceptions of Asian culture. (A video store’s Chinese film section, for example, offers only The Last Emperor, The Joy Luck Club, and porn.) But Saving Face’s entertaining takes on intergenerational conflict and relationships in general transcend nationality. Joan Chen, whose character is called only “Ma,” moves nimbly between being her father’s deferential daughter, Wil’s uptight mother, and an impossibly young-looking and lonely woman who still gets nervous about dates—which she goes on a string of, all hopeless. And for all the elders’ discipline, even the old folks at the dance can’t stop themselves from dividing junior-high-style into boys and girls, each group bellyaching about the other.
There’s a bit of tragedy thrown in for good measure, but this being more or less a romantic comedy, it basically just makes people put aside their differences and realize what’s important in life. That’s not very surprising, but after 90 minutes of everyone struggling to keep up prim appearances, Saving Face’s brazen resolution sure is: If people don’t like how other people choose to live, one character suggests, “fuck ’em.”CP