There are actors who are only as good as their material, those who can't rise above a weak script or who bring down a good one. With the openings this week of Bewitched and Herbie: Fully Loaded, throw respective stars Nicole Kidman and Lindsay Lohan in that camp. Both have officially proven that they're only as good as the films in which they appear.
Kidman was a bore in last year's boring Stepford Wives. Lohan, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air in the refreshing Mean Girls. But put Kidman in a good film, and watch her shine. Put Lohan in a dud, and watch her fizzle.
Such is the case with Kidman's Bewitched and Lohan's Herbie. The former is quite good; the latter is cinematic trash. The difference? The former has a clever, smart script. The latter has the same joke over and over again.
Perhaps more than all that, though, Bewitched has Will Ferrell and Herbie doesn't.
From the beginning of the recent TV-show-to-film trend, a big-screen adaptation of Bewitched had been rumored. Yet not until the current talent was assembled did the project leave the ground.
The updated premise, courtesy of co-writer/director Nora Ephron and her co-writer/sister Delia, begins with a couple of sleazy producers pitching falling star Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) to do the TV show Bewitched, a remake of the same classic '60s sitcom on which this film is based.
Confused yet? Don't be. It makes complete sense on screen.
Jack agrees to do the show, but only if the producers cast an unknown in the Samantha role, thereby allowing him to steal the spotlight and put his career back on track. At that same time, erstwhile witch Isabel Bigelow (Kidman) flies into town, putting her spell-casting past behind, headstrong on starting a new life among the mortals of Los Angeles. When Jack spots Isabel twinkling her nose at a local bookstore, he immediately knows she's the one.
Bewitched is clearly Ephron's best script since When Harry Met Sally: It's smart, funny, quick and winks at itself just enough. This is a movie that knows its cheap pedigree. Everyone involved seems to know they're making a sitcom-cum-film, but they play to it and keep it light.
The reason for its success isn't Kidman, however. She's fine, appearing to be having more fun in this film than she has in years. After some notable star turns as an "Important Actress," perhaps she forgot to turn down the intensity on her lighter fare. With her winning smile and aw-shucks, stranger-in-a-strange land attitude, she makes Isabel/Samantha a charismatic character. But, as in the original TV show, she's merely a set-up for Ferrell's punch line.
Ferrell has the unique ability to endear himself to audiences in either smug, unlikable roles (Anchorman) or sweet-as-sugar man-child fare (Elf). And yet he retains, in both cases, the ability to stun us into laughter.
Take that now-classic scene from Old School when he strips down to his running shoes and announces to the party and to the world, "We're going streaking!" There is a similar moment in Bewitched, but to say too much would spoil that moment of comedic shock. It's a brand of shamelessness few actors (and fewer bankable ones) in Hollywood possess.
Ferrell uses it to his distinct advantage. Anything for the laugh, he seems to say. Bewitched is exponentially better for it.
Herbie: Fully Loaded really could've used someone like Ferrell to insert unexpected wit and give it a fighting chance at success. Instead, it stalls at the gate.
Who can forget Disney's Love Bug franchise, born in the same '60s era as Bewitched? The better question: Who wants to?
The Volkswagen Bug with a mind of its own is back, this time with family-friendly Lohan behind the wheel. She plays Maggie Peyton, the daughter and granddaughter of a couple of NASCAR legends. Maggie is a fine race driver in her own right, but over-protective dad Ray (Michael Keaton) doesn't want her taking up the family business.
After she stumbles on the frisky Herbie in a scrap yard and realizes his need to compete matches her own, Maggie becomes the masked racer "Max" and challenges NASCAR stud Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) to a race. Can she win the race -- and learn a few lessons in the meantime -- before Dad finds out she's been breaking her promise?
This new Herbie, directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S. ), is just too redundant. The film opens with newsreel-style footage of some of the old Love Bug movies. It's a fitting start, because the 21st-century version appears to rely on the same tired jokes as the earlier romps. Really, how many times do we need to see Herbie pop his hood on an unsuspecting passerby before it becomes unfunny?
Lohan is fine, but she's given precious little to do. She was good in Mean Girls and even Freaky Friday playing the cute and smart girl-next-door. As it turns out, those decent performances might have had more to do with the talent around her (and certainly the scripts) than Lohan's abilities.
In films like Herbie: Fully Loaded and Bewitched, true talent -- or a lack thereof -- becomes painfully obvious. Bewitched grade: B+; Herbie: Fully Loaded grade: D