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Hell’s Belle



I had the worst sex of my life fourteen years ago in Chicago in the front seat of a Toyota with a man who reminded me of Satan. I don’t mean he had red skin or cloven hooves, but there was something about him — black eyes, furry mustache, the whole sordid hairy bulk of him — that suggested a subtle and timeless malevolence. And, yes, there was something about that malevolence that was deeply attractive, that made me want to cross boundaries. I was too drunk at the time to make the journey (so was he), but it did fill me with a new respect for the logic of seduction: get their gonads humming, and the souls will follow.

    

For Satan to be Satan, in other words, he must first be sexy. Milton understood this: the Lucifer of Paradise Lost has the dash and brio of an alternative-rock star. Even the writer of Genesis had the good sense to tempt Eve with the most phallically shaped creature in the animal kingdom. But American movies (taking their cue, perhaps, from the urbane devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman) have fashioned their Antichrists in the mold of Claude Rains and Vincent Price: courtly private-school types with impeccable diction and dinner jackets and fingers made for cigarette holders. These guys lull you with syntax, acquire your soul over a glass of sherry. They pose as much sexual threat as Alastair Cooke.

    

So it’s a sign of progress, I suppose, that the makers of the Faustian comedy, Bedazzled, have cast the shagadelic Elizabeth Hurley in the role of Chief Temptress — a role played by the less overtly bodacious Peter Cooke in the original ’60s incarnation of the film. And it’s even more encouraging that, in our first glimpse of her, she is practically a hologram of sex: leaning against a pool table, suggestively clutching her cue, hair swirling to its own wind machine. That slithering body! Those smoldering eyes! All lavished on Elliott, the film’s technogeek hero (Brendan Fraser, suppressing his natural attractiveness). And it’s even better in a way that this vixen in the slit skirt wants not Elliott’s body but his soul, and she’ll grant him seven wishes if he coughs it up.

    

Since the film has already set up Elliott as a doofus with women, it’s easy to guess what those wishes will revolve around: getting some . . . and in particular, getting some with the babe of his dreams, a wispy-voiced woman with bangs named Allison (Frances O’Connor). The joke of Bedazzled is that Elliott is granted everything he wants and still can’t get laid. Each time he tries to woo Allison by asking the Devil for a new persona, he ends up being, in some unforeseen but critical way, doomed to failure: the world-famous basketball player turns out to have a needle dick; the wealthy Colombian drug lord is being cuckolded by one of his employees; the suave intellectual slays women at society soirees but has a swishy gay lover waiting at home. The Devil, meanwhile, hangs around, biding her time looking sultry and mock-commiserating with his struggle.

    

It’s a slim premise on which to hang a film — the devil is in the details — and in the normally capable hands of screenwriters Larry Gelbart, Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan, it only gets thinner with each repetition. Fraser, though, keeps plugging away, and if there’s anything motoring this tame and unsurprising movie, it’s the energy with which he throws himself into his character’s various incarnations. (He’s particularly good as Sensitive Elliott, the freckled nature lover whose endless gushing drives Allison into the arms of a passing beach thug.) Unfortunately, not even Fraser can do much about the movie’s concluding passages, in which Elliott reclaims his soul from the Devil by breaking the rules and making an unselfish wish — a happy life for his beloved. Free now to approach Allison as his plain old self, Elliott learns to his chagrin that she is dating someone else. Of course, he then goes home to find her ready-and-available look-alike (played by the same actress) moving in next door. The moral of our tale? 1.) Men never score with women until they give up on the whole notion of scoring. 2.) It’s better to wish for other people’s happiness than our own.

    

I thought Elizabeth Hurley looked particularly glum at having to dispense that last bit of news. Hurley’s a pleasingly saucy presence in the film, and even though she’s not exactly an actress and doesn’t have a comedienne’s timing or chops, her English inflections spruce up some rather tired punch lines. (Queried about her heavenly rival, she snaps: “Every man in the world thinks he’s God. He just happens to be right.”) Yet I couldn’t help noticing that this Devil (and correct me, heterosexuals, if I’m wrong) is just not as hot as she’s cracked up to be. Elizabeth Hurley’s slinky body has been consumed too much, nourished too little; her carefully painted face has acquired the hard lacquer of a commodity (and like many commodities, it falls apart on closer inspection).

    

Maybe it’s a matter of taste — I like to discover someone’s attractiveness, rather than have it constantly asserted. Frances O’Connor, for instance, the Australian actress who plays Allison, has a quirky, changeable face — it stands up quite well from certain angles, less well from others, but it continually freshens itself in your eyes. Elizabeth Hurley, by contrast, is a kind of billboard for sex: an eternal frozen promise with the suspicion of emptiness behind it. And maybe this is Satan’s ultimate trick: to make us lust for an illusion. Maybe I should have figured that out fourteen years ago — the Devil is fun to date but hell to screw.

©2000
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.