In the acting world, there are a few deeply coveted roles that allow thespians to indulge every impulse that caused them to mount the stage and deploy the full complement of their Yale M.F.A. shtick. In short, these roles place their occupant at the cosmically ordained center of attention for a minimum of two hours.
Shakespeare wrote most of these plum assignments: Hamlet, Macbeth (Lady and Mr.), Romeo, and Juliet. But there are others: Annie, Willy Loman, Medea. And the list includes generic characters instantly recognizable to every moviegoer: the alcoholic, depressed, but pride-filled middle-aged woman; the quiet, crippled, and exceptionally stubborn yet romantic man; the sick/terminally ill mother/father who is trying to hold the family together despite the fact that they are getting divorced/have a gambling problem/are living in 1941 Poland. You know the type. But topping the list of Hollywood's "It" roles has always been the Devil.
Old Scratch has a long and storied history in the cinema, dating back to 1899 when Georges Méliès played him in the silent French short "Le Diable au convent." Edward Connelly gave him his American debut in the title role of "The Devil" in 1915, and Ray Corrigan gave him voice for the first time in the 1935 talkie version of "Dante's Inferno."
In the years since, many a great actor has taken up the pitchfork and horns. Some you'd expect, like Claude Raines, Vincent Price, Al Pacino, Gabriel Byrne, George C. Scott, Max von Sydow, and Robert Goulet. Others you wouldn't, like Alan Cumming, David Alan Grier, George Burns, Mickey Rooney, and John Ritter.
In the new movie "Bedazzled," Harold Ramis gives us perhaps the most inspired casting of Lucifer yet: Elizabeth Hurley. An English-speaking actress has been marked with 666 only once before, according to unscientific research (porn ingénue Traci Lords tried it in "New Wave Hookers" in 1985), but minutes into Hurley's performance it becomes obvious that she is the real Slim Shady. Her Satan is wicked and knowing, and so much fun, that all sorts of questions about the great beyond come clear. Of course Satan is a supermodel! Of course Satan has a snotty British accent! So perfectly does Hurley fit the role, the seasoned moviegoer might even doubt if she is truly acting: Could the unexplainable success of Hurley's former boyfriend Hugh Grant have a whiff of brimstone about it?
A remake of the 1967 Peter Cook-Dudley Moore cult classic "Bedazzled" is also the third film about the Devil to be released in the last month ("The Exorcist" and "Lost Souls" came out recently, and Adam Sandler's "Little Nicky" is due in early November). The movie begins with semi-lovable schlump Elliot Richards (played by Brendan Fraser) who is trapped in a lame tech-support job. Elliott is overeager and awkward and obnoxious all at once. He has no real friends and is helplessly crushing on cute co-worker Allison (Frances O'Connor from the excellent Aussie-noir "Kiss or Kill").
One night, Elliot mutters that he would give anything to be with Allison; enter Hurley. She offers Elliot the standard Faustian deal, his soul in exchange for seven wishes. Stupid in addition to being awkward and overeager, Elliot is shocked--shocked!--when his wishes don't work out the way he intended.
Writer-director Ramis, the creator of some truly fantastic comedies such as "Caddyshack," "Stripes," and "Ghostbusters," loses his footing in "Bedazzled." His throwaway gags are quite funny. The Devil claims to have offices in "Purgatory, Hell, and Los Angeles." At one point, Hurley, posing as a meter maid, merrily snaps her fingers at parking meters, causing them to expire so that she can write tickets.
But the movie's big schemes fall flat. Every time Elliot makes a wish, it's obvious what will go wrong. And ultimately, the movie ends stuck in sap, with Elliot telling the Devil, "To tell you the truth, you're the best friend I ever had." At its worst, "Bedazzled" feels like a Very Special Episode of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."
Good writing often saves bad casting, but in "Bedazzled" the converse is nearly true. Hurley almost rescues the movie with her inspired preening, slinking, and pouting. At one point, Hurley snaps, "You would think that meeting the Devil would be interesting enough, but no, everyone wants to know about [God]. Like He's so bloody fascinating." Some actresses act with their eyes (Meryl Streep) or their hands (Julianne Moore). Elizabeth Hurley acts with her cheekbones.