"Grand is the name, and money is the game. Care to play?"
Well…if Ringo Starr's in it, it must be good.
Facts of the Case
Eccentric millionaire Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers, Being There) adopts long-haired do-nothing Youngman (Ringo Starr, A Hard Day's Night), and the two begin an anti-authoritarian rampage, using Grand's wealth (and everyone's desire to get hold of a piece of it) to swing away at the pillars of society: capitalism, the class structure, religion, politics. The film unfolds as a series of comic vignettes, leading up to a dénouement that comes in the form of the first voyage of a steamer called The Magic Christian. The transatlantic voyage is to be the social event of the season, with only the wealthiest and most prestigious able to obtain tickets. That's the plan, anyway, until Sir Guy and his "son" step in and turn everything upside down.
The Magic Christian might be called a psychedelic picaresque, an example of that odd and short-lived comic category of the late '60s combining colorful characters (often played in cameos by stars from every walk of fame), a chaotic, vignette-style narrative, satire, and the absurd. At the center of many of the entries in this little subgenre, this film-history cul de sac, is writer Terry Southern, who wrote or contributed to the screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, Candy, and Easy Rider. If you're familiar with those films, they should give you a sense of how uneven Southern's work can be, alternately laugh-aloud funny and groan-inducing silly, satire that teeters between surgically precise and ham-fisted.
The Magic Christian was adapted by Southern and director Joseph McGrath (he was one of Casino Royale's handful of directors) from Southern's novel and is about as uneven as it gets. Mostly, it's cloying and dated and causes one to feel pangs of embarrassment for everyone involved. The film drips with the absurd but, unfortunately, it's mostly silly and not all that funny. Maybe if I'd done a bong or dropped some acid before viewing, the humor would've worked better for me. Individual scenes are sometimes clever, throwing plenty of literate, culturally-aware dialogue at us, but in the end it doesn't amount to much. The film's philosophy—that we're all programmed consumers, sold out to a cultural establishment protected by the rich and influential—is neatly established at the outset, leaving the rest of the film feeling heavy-handed, driving home a point we already get. Monty Python greats John Cleese and Graham Chapman also contributed to the screenplay (as well as making cameo appearances), but it only serves to remind us how the film fails to do what that troupe does so well: slap together absurd and apparently incongruous vignettes that, in truth, resonate thematically against one another, creating a meaningful whole.
The Magic Christian reminds me of a more engaging, yet equally incoherent piece of psychedelia, the Jack Nicholson/Bob Rafelson-penned Head, starring the Monkees. Not only is the comedy better in that film (if still alternately silly and heavy-handed in its social statements), but the music is far more engaging, and the film is more visually experimental. While both The Magic Christian and Head employ a dizzying array of cameos, the former seemingly does so based solely on the availability and willingness of the cultural figures: Wilfrid-Hyde White, Richard Attenborough, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, and the two Pythons are recognizable, but so what? Head, on the other hand, employs figures such as Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Sonny Liston, and Frank Zappa precisely because of their significance in either the mainstream or counterculture of the day—the cameos themselves are cultural signifiers and add to the density of the film. The Magic Christian achieves no such density (visually, aurally, or culturally) and the results feel very messy.
Like all psychedelic movies, The Magic Christian has a hippie, drippy score anchored by a signature tune. This is an essential part of the structure of these films, which have often been cited as the precursors to MTV because of music's integral role in the films' fabric, its often direct attachment to the visuals on the screen. In the case of The Magic Christian, the signature tune is Paul McCartney's "Come and Get It," a semi-grating little ditty performed by Badfinger (and partly responsible for the rumors of the late '60s and early '70s that Badfinger actually was the Beatles recording under a different name because…well…um…they're the Beatles and they do weird stuff, I guess). The song isn't exactly a rock-solid anchor like Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" in Easy Rider, but this is hardly the fault of the filmmakers. How can one predict which songs will have a lasting cultural impact? Clearly, "Born to Be Wild" and Easy Rider bolstered each other; neither would be so indelible without the other. And it's not as if "Come and Get It" were written by some unknown hack, but neither the song nor the film have the qualities required to boost each other into the pop culture stratosphere.
Despite its many flaws, the film has its moments. Just as one is yawning from clunker vignettes like the countercultural stripteasing Hamlet with Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) in the title role, along comes a funny one like the boxing match in which the two fighters make their entrances into the arena and go through the standard pre-fight ritual in which the referee briefs them on the rules, only to embrace and kiss each after the opening bell, leaving the audience "sickened by the absence of blood." There's a scene on a commuter train that is patently unfunny even when one ignores the fact it calls to mind the classic scene from Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night. But then there's the extended auction vignette featuring a very funny and low-key cameo by John Cleese, and boasting some of Peter Sellers' best and broadest humor in the film.
Sellers is fine throughout the movie, by the way. It's not one of his more memorable performances—in large part because the material he's got to work with is woefully insufficient—but he still manages to completely inhabit the character of Sir Guy Grand as only he can (Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers have shown a similar talent, but neither comes near Sellers' brilliance when he's firing on all cylinders). Ringo brings little to the film besides the right look, but he does manage to stay out of Sellers' way and avoid being an annoying distraction.
The Magic Christian comes to DVD in a full screen, pan and scan transfer. Frankly, I'm not sure what the aspect ratio was during the film's theatrical run. Compositions don't seem overly crowded and the title sequence, which is framed at 1.66:1, looks about right, so there may be very little lost in the full frame presentation. The source displays regular specks, scratches, and other damage, and there's some heavy grain in isolated moments that appear to be matte shots. Otherwise, the picture is relatively sharp, with decently-rendered colors for a film this old.
In terms of audio, the stereo track proper is clean, but some of the music is quite distorted, riddled with pops and hiss, and has a flat dynamic range. Also, the mix seems off at times, with dialogue seated too far in the background.
Unless you're a big-time fan of this little genre, I'd steer clear.
I'm going to have to find The Magic Christian, both film and DVD, guilty as charged.
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