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‘Bewitched’ needs a bit more magic

Nicole Kidman stars as a real witch who gets to play one on TV. By John Hartl

Give Nora Ephron’s “Bewitched” credit for not being a standard-issue remake. Instead of stretching a half-hour sitcom into a 105-minute feature film (probably not the best idea), she’s created a sitcom within a feature within a remake.

Part of the movie is a 21st century Hollywood satire, about a down-on-his-luck actor named Jack (Will Ferrell) who tries to revive his career by starring in a television series based on the 1960s fantasy hit, “Bewitched.” Jack casts himself as the hapless Darrin, who never quite knows what to make of his spell-casting wife, Samantha.

Jack’s co-star, Isabel (Nicole Kidman), happens to be a real witch, just like Samantha (originally played by Elizabeth Montgomery). Shirley MacLaine plays Samantha’s equally magical mother, Endora, and Michael Caine is her disapproving dad, Nigel. Steve Carell does a mean impersonation of Paul Lynde, who played Samantha’s uncle, Arthur, in the original series.

Trouble is, the ambitious Jack doesn’t realize that Darrin is such a bland role that more than one actor could play him and no one would notice — which is exactly what happened when Dick York was replaced by Dick Sargent in the original series. Much to Jack’s chagrin, test audiences can’t warm to Jack but they love Isabel. Soon, of course, so does Jack, which leads to plenty of personal and professional complications.

These added layers lend the movie both a momentum and a complexity that a routine remake would probably have struggled to supply. Whenever the backstage plot falters, the restaged television show comes to the rescue. Whenever the relationship between Samantha and Jack threatens to turn sappy, Endora and Nigel are ready to provide plenty of spellbound distraction.

For much of its running time, “Bewitched” is moderately amusing, though it never really takes off and becomes the fantasy-comedy classic it wants to be. Ferrell’s slapstick routines for the television show are curiously unfunny (why is the studio audience laughing?), and there are far too many examples of Samantha’s supposedly magical nose-twitching.

The details of Jack’s stalled career are much funnier. At one point, his whole career is summed up as Isabel channel-surfs, watching him on cable television in cut-rate versions of  “Gladiator,” “Platoon” and a commercially disastrous “Seven Years in Tibet” lookalike called “Last Year in Katmandu.” The latter, we’re told by Jack’s manager (Jason Schwartzman), is unique in that it never sold a single DVD.

Plentiful clips from the original “Bewitched” also turn up, sometimes for nostalgic effect, sometimes to call attention to the considerable differences between cut-rate 1960s sitcoms and today’s costlier, technically superior models.

The script by Nora and Delia Ephron gives Kidman, Ferrell and Correll plenty of opportunities to shine, and they’re frequently uncanny, especially when Kidman is conjuring up Montgomery’s mannerisms and Carell is channeling Lynde.

Caine and MacLaine, whose chemistry was demonstrated so long ago in a couple of 1960s comedies (“Gambit,” “Woman Times Seven”), could probably carry a “Bewitched” spin-off all on their own. Too bad they’re barely introduced here before they’re shuffled off to supporting-actor limbo.