She had a gift for magic. He had a few tricks up his sleeve. Together, they will make a believer out of you.
I'll get right to the point: if Rough Magic isn't the most eccentric major-studio film I've ever seen, it's in the top three.
Picture if you dare: A woman lays an alabaster egg that hatches into a tarantula. A man is transformed into a sausage, which is eaten by a little dog. People are commanded to drop dead and they do—only to resurrect again later. A character regurgitates her own heart, which looks like the decoration atop a sampler box of valentine chocolates, and continues without it for a significant stretch of the picture. Henry Fonda's granddaughter imbibes a Corona with tobacco spit in it and urinates on a fat green lizard. A Brylcreemed tycoon shares a soul kiss with Martin Sheen's communications director from The West Wing. Richard Nixon delivers his "Checkers" speech.
Color me freaked.
Facts of the Case
In 1952 big-city America, pert and perky Myra Shumway (Bridget Fonda, Kiss Of The Dragon) is a magician. To be more precise, she's a magician's assistant, the leotard-and-sequins-clad apprentice to a hard-luck Houdini known as Ivan the Terrific (Kenneth Mars, echoing his symbolically similar character from Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog). Following a Meet-Cute in an elevator, where Myra turns chasing rabbits into a flirtatious publicity stunt, she becomes the fiancée of up-and-coming politician Cliff Wyatt (D.W. Moffett, Traffic), a man so slick one wonders how his clothes stay on.
When an altercation between Ivan and Cliff results in the magician's death, Myra flees to Mexico in her banana-yellow 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible. (Is this the same dreamboat Cruise and Hoffman tooled around in in Rain Man?) There, Ivan had told her, the key to unlocking her gift for magic rested with the last survivor of a Mayan shaman cult called the Socavon. Along the way, Myra hooks up with Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy, Moulin Rouge!), a snake-oil salesman who also seeks the secrets of the Socavon, and with Alex Ross (a pre-superstardom Russell Crowe, mangling an American accent), a one-time war correspondent who's gone to seed since witnessing the horrific aftermath of the atomic attack on Nagasaki. Ross has been commissioned by a newspaperman friend of Wyatt's to track Myra down and reunite the wannabe Senator with his runaway bride.
As one might guess, Myra and Ross fall in love. (How difficult a prediction is this? She's a woman, he's Russell Crowe. As Crowe's character puts it, "If I couldn't smell tamales cookin', I'd swear I'd died and gone to heaven.") As one might also guess, Myra does find the shaman and collect her bounty of "rough magic." And with glacial pace the film devolves into what Mac Davis in North Dallas Forty succinctly described as "the weird part."
That, friends, you'll have to experience for yourself. Or not.
Director Clare Peploe (the wife of Bernardo Bertolucci) takes a monumental leap of faith in attempting to meld three elements that most filmmakers would never attempt to commingle: pseudo-noir, screwball comedy, and magic realism. (I say "pseudo-noir" because Peploe's world is too sunny and her characters insufficiently world-weary for this to truly qualify as film noir.) The only other director I can recall offhand who tried a similar experiment is Martin Campbell, with his stylish made-for-cable comic/noir/horror opus, Cast a Deadly Spell (which isn't available on DVD, but should be). Like Campbell's film, Rough Magic doesn't quite work (albeit for somewhat different reasons), but is worth seeing if only for its sheer audacity.
I haven't read the novel on which Rough Magic was based (Miss Shumway Waves a Wand by British mystery author James Hadley Chase, best known for the hardboiled classic No Orchids for Miss Blandish), but if the script by Peploe and co-writers Robert Mundy and William Brookfield mirrors the source material at all closely, one wonders why anyone would have thought to film it at all. The director forces us as her audience through a monumental struggle to figure out what we should make of her film. Should we take it seriously? Should we laugh at its quirky perambulations? Or are we supposed to divine some deeper, mystical meaning in them? We can't really be sure. And because we can't determine what to think of Rough Magic, we end up thinking…well…that we'll be relieved when it's over.
Clearly the actors are as mystified as the viewer, because they never give us any real sense that they had a clue what they were doing here. Bridget Fonda is a real throwback to the Veronica Lakes and Vera Hruba Ralstons of a previous era: she's lovely in that icy-blonde Hitchcockian way, has undeniable screen presence and can, in fact, be quite charming (as she is here). She also generates all the excitement of last week's bowl of Top Ramen—like those phosphorescent glow tubes you buy at the circus, she's all light and no heat. Peploe clearly wants us to think of Fonda as a reinvented Lauren Bacall (Russell Crowe's character, after the manner of Bogart, calls her "Slim"), but Bacall at least had grit. Crowe mutters and mumbles his dialogue like he just switched to decaf. Paul Rodriguez must have owned compromising photos of the producers, a midget and a goat to finagle his no-acting self into this flick. Even the usually reliable Jim Broadbent and Kenneth Mars can't figure out whether their characters are frauds or philosophers, so they manage to be unconvincing as either. D.W. Moffett…who cares, really?
So we're left with this lushly photographed period piece that, like the aforementioned tarantula egg, uses its colorful shell to mask something creepy but harmless underneath. (Cinematographer John J. Campbell was behind the lens for Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, another good-looking, eerie and vacuous film.) And, oddly enough, the movie grows on you—like kudzu—before it's done. Myra and Ross make a cute couple, and the Mexican and Central American backdrops are breathtaking. But ultimately a film has to tell a story you care about, and it's hard to care if you keeping shouting "What the…?" at the screen. No wonder Rough Magic moldered in the can for two years before Columbia snuck it in and out of the arthouses while no one was watching. How would you market a movie as baffling and inscrutable as this one? And perhaps more to the point, why would you?
No doubt as befuddled about Rough Magic in DVD release as in theatrical, Columbia TriStar dumps this quizzical little crumpet on home video in a skeletal, joyless presentation. Read my lips: gauzy full-frame transfer, flat 2.0 stereo soundtrack, ugly keep case art, and two trailers for mid-90s comedies as the sole add-ons. And when the cover quote comes from the critic at an indie weekly in Philly, you know that this—despite the Bogie/Bacall references—is not the second coming of To Have and Have Not. Or even Key Largo.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Awesome car, though.
It's tempting to brand Rough Magic as pretentious and empty—Twin Peaks goes south of the border. But I'm not sure that would be either accurate or fair. Clare Peploe's affection for this story and these people shines through the quaint freakishness, and I rather believe she understands precisely what she's trying to accomplish. Me, I don't get it. But I give her credit for trying something fresh.
Rough Magic may be that rarest of cinematic creations: discussion of whether it is good (and some of it—visually, anyway—is very good) or bad (and some of it—the script and the acting—is very bad) misses the point entirely, I think. If you're on the director's bizarre wavelength, this movie may stir your soul like the smell of tamales in the morning. If you're down here on terra firma with me, I suggest we just admire the scenery and pretend we know what's going on.
This Judge is going to kick this case upstairs to a higher court that may be capable of making heads or tails of it. Until then, we're in recess.
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