“Rough Magic” and missed chances

16 April 2010

I was compelled to see “Rough Magic” (1995) again last night — and not because I remembered it being terribly good.  There’s something haunting about it despite the fact that it’s just not a very good movie.  I think it’s so promising — and therefore disappointing — because the combination of magical realism and film noir is so full of possibility.  It’s truly too bad the film doesn’t manage to make it work.

It helps that Bridget Fonda channels such a terrific Lauren Bacall vibe playing Myra, a magician’s assistant, and that most of the film’s action takes place in a sunny postwar Mexico rather than the familiar darkened streets, alleys, and dives of Southern California.  Myra’s on the lam because back in LA, she saw her slick wannabe-politician fiancé murder her magician boss; and as she drives her gorgeous convertible into rural Mexico, her increasingly sinister fiancé arranges for a freelance private eye, Ross (Russell Crowe, using a ham-fisted New York accent in one of his earliest American roles) to find her and bring her back.  Instead, Ross falls for her and the two get caught up in the possibility that Myra might really possess magical abilities, skills that can be enhanced if she can find an ancient shaman woman. 

The movie has a terrific opening, which puts you exactly in the mood for what it’s about to sell you.  Dressed in a memorable stage outfit, Myra chases a white rabbit into an elevator filled with three businessmen.  Instead of picking up the rabbit right away, she extracts three little bunnies from the men’s suit coat pockets, pops them into her top hat, tips the hat onto her head (and Bridget Fonda looks fantastic in a top hat), and leaves while the men’s mouths are still open.  It’s a great movie opening: I was sold.

The two actors offered a lot of promise, too.  Fonda seemed to be a perpetual B actor, mostly memorable for being out-acted by Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female” (1992).  Still, she always had a kind of hopeful, nervous appeal — maybe even like Jean Arthur, one of my favorites — that made me watch for her.  And when I first saw this film, I’d only seen Crowe in the great Australian film “Proof” (1991); by 1995 he’d bulked up to a pugilist’s body, which seemed odd at the time and yet appears somehow endearing, even ideal for his version of a WWII vet-cum-private dick with more than just a layer of post-traumatic stress.  Neither seems wholly comfortable in his own skin, as if the director compiled the entire film with first takes.  This isn’t to say they do a bad job; the actors’ jitteriness, their slight discomfort with their tough-guy, wise-cracking lines … all this still made me hope the film would turn out to be one of those modest but magically sweet films.

But by the time Myra and Ross set off together on the run, the film takes a dive.  Although it was written and directed by the same woman, Clare Peploe, who apparently had experience in both fields, the film’s unevenness made me wonder if it had been made by two or three people who spent the production period at one another’s throats — perhaps a noir writer and a magical realism writer who ceased to get along at some point, or maybe there was a diva-like editor who chopped out all the parts of the story that might have given it smooth transitions and sustained the mood.  Even more disappointing is the fact that it comes up with a comical Latino (Paul Rodriguez) for no good reason at all (what happened to political correctness in the mid-90s?).  The film eventually loses track of its own tale and drops a few of the balls it has in the air, making it very rough magic indeed.  More than anything, by the end it’s merely become a farce, not entirely intentionally.

Despite the missed chances of “Rough Magic,” I hope someone else tries this formula.  The magical realism makes for such a great twist on the cynical, fast-talking noir trope.  I love the idea that, rather than simply find again that a grisly crime was motivated by sex and greed, our hard-bitten protagonist might find love and/or transformation at work in the universe.

It’s just too bad.  We could use some magic at this point.  At my university we’re staggering and yet are still a few weeks away from the end of the semester, and I seem to be surrounded by cynicism and exhaustion.  At least I know better why this film has haunted me — and why we could use a film that dilutes gritty noir with hope.

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