Saturday, August 30, 2014

Neglected Gem #60: Rough Magic (1995)

Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe in Rough Magic (1995).

One of the most charming unheralded movies of the eighties was Clare Peploe’s High Season, a high comedy set on a sun-soaked Greek island. It took Peploe – who is married to Bernardo Bertolucci and sometimes gets screenplay credit on his movies – nearly a decade to be able to make another picture. Rough Magic came out early in 1997 after sitting in the can for two years, opened in very few cities and received mostly dismissive reviews. But it’s one of the oddest and loveliest comedies of the mid-nineties. Adapted by Robert Mundy, William Brookfield and Peploe from a James Hadley Chase novel called Miss Shumway Waves a Wand and set in the fifties, it’s a cross between a screwball comedy and a magic-realist fable.

The delightful, underused Bridget Fonda has perhaps her best screen role as Myra Shumway, a magician who advertises by producing bunnies from the pockets of businessmen in hotel elevators. Her boss and mentor, Ivan (Kenneth Mars, sporting a white nineteenth-century-style Vandyke), tells her she’s a natural but counsels her that magic comes from the heart. And she doesn’t know her heart yet. She thinks she loves Wyatt (D.W. Moffett), a slippery senatorial candidate who wants to marry her because he knows he isn’t electable without a wife. It’s Wyatt who shoots real bullets out of a prop gun during a performance, apparently killing Ivan. We can’t be sure, though, because when he tries to bury the magician, opening the trunk where he’s stowed it he finds the body’s disappeared; doves fly out, leaving a trunk full of feathers. Meanwhile, Myra, holding fast to an incriminating photo of Wyatt shooting Ivan that could ruin his political career, runs off to Mexico to find a witch doctor named Tojola (Euva Anderson). It was Ivan’s dying request that she ingest Tojola’s powerful potion to restore her to her true self. En route she encounters Alex Ross (Russell Crowe), whom Wyatt has hired to shadow her, and Doc (Jim Broadbent), a scam artist with a commercial interest in Tojola’s brew. Neither of these men is a villain, however. Doc is that rare and marvelous combination – a huckster who’s also a true believer – and Ross falls in love with the woman he’s been hired to tail.

Director Clare Peploe with Fonda and Crowe.

The plot staunchly refuses to take us in any direction we might have guessed it would, and that’s no doubt one of the reason Columbia TriStar dropped the movie; studios are terrified of properties that don’t follow predictable paths. But Rough Magic is nutty and twisty without ever becoming chaotic; Peploe is always firmly in control of the elegantly cockeyed style. The scenes are all variations on the theme of truth and illusion (which is the name of Ivan’s magic company), and since we’re constantly being caught off guard, in a sense the movie is an extended magic show that’s endlessly fresh and surprising. In one scene, Myra saves Ross from a sadistic creep (Paul Rodriguez) who’s about to set him on fire by turning the creep into a sausage; a dog ambles up to this unexpected treat and begins to munch on it. In another, after Myra has slept off the immediate effects of the potion, she tells Ross that she feels different, as if the empty space between her head and her heart had finally been filled, and when she makes love to him, they float in the air. The tone of these sequences is screwball wonder.

The dialogue isn’t always up to the visuals, which are aided by John J. Campbell’s vibrant cinematography. And I wish the movie weren’t so underpopulated, though the actors who show up in it (including Richard Schiff as Wyatt’s manservant) leave nothing to be desired. Jim Broadbent’s line readings would qualify as magic by anyone’s definition. Crowe reveals a more relaxed side than he usually displays – it’s the side that came across when he played Jack Thompson’s gay son in the Australian comedy-drama The Sum of Us, and many years later in A Good Year. And Fonda, with a swirl of honey-golden hair that recalls Veronica Lake, wearing Richard Hornung’s glorious costumes, suggests a combination of the sex-blooding quality her aunt Jane showed in her early career as a comedienne and the smarts she showed in that brief period in the late sixties and early seventies when she was the best naturalistic screen actress in the country. Rough Magic is an inspired doodle, and Peploe is its true magician. Unhappily, almost no one got an opportunity to see it. For Peploe, getting projects off the ground has been like pulling a rabbit out of a hat: she’s made only one movie since, The Triumph of Love in 2001, though it’s even better than High Season or Rough Magic.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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