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Movie Review

Trying to Make 'Magic' Out of Spiritualism, Film Noir

May 30, 1997|JOHN ANDERSON | FOR THE TIMES

Like a car constructed out of scavenged parts, "Rough Magic" sputters, coughs, wheezes, lurches, spins out of control and runs smack into the springtime of our discontent. Of course, it's a miracle it moves at all.

Starring the inscrutable Bridget Fonda and the very talented but consistently misused Russell Crowe, "Rough Magic" has a '50s setting (we see Nixon deliver the Checkers speech), a '40s wardrobe (Fonda tries to out-Bacall Bacall), a '60s sense of the absurd and, of course, a strictly '90s sense of narrative poverty.

While the cast is likable--it includes Kenneth Mars and Jim Broadbent, who occupy a similar status on their respective sides of the Atlantic--the story is an irritatingly obtuse attempt to make bedfellows of magic, Mexican spiritualism, film noir and the Atomic Energy Commission. It's hard to say whether director Clare Peploe actually intended to make "Rough Magic" such an unnatural act, but what she has delivered is a menage a trois of Don Siegel, Carlos Castan~eda and Captain Kangaroo.

But let's get to the meat of this ham sandwich: Myra Shumway (Fonda) is the gifted understudy to a mysterious magician (Mars), who doesn't want her to marry the oily, mustachioed, uranium-wealthy Senate candidate Cliff Wyatt (D.W. Moffett). During a decidedly arch interlude in their dressing room, Cliff shoots the magician from the confines of a guillotine while Myra takes a photo and then splits for Mexico while Cliff puts the seedy ex-reporter Alex Ross (Crowe) on her trail.

Together, Myra and Alex head south, where Doc Ansell (Broadbent) is trying to get the recipe for a secret elixir out of a Mayan shaman (Euva Anderson) who would like to turn him into a toad. They all hook up, Myra and Alex bond, a nasty guy named Diego (the unforgivable Paul Rodriguez) gives them a dose of pre-NAFTA diplomacy, Myra communes with the white witches of the Mexican outback and Cliff turns out to be a homosexual.

"Magic, my dear, comes from the heart, not the head," says the worldly old magician--and while death, resurrection and cohabiting rabbits finish up "Rough Magic," you'll be holding your head, wondering just when hip became hell and overripe became over-the-top and why, if Peploe really had been thinking, she didn't toss in a few dinosaurs.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, sensuality and drug content, and for language. Times guidelines: too intense for young kids.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Rough Magic'

Bridget Fonda: Myra Shumway

Russell Crowe: Alex Ross

Jim Broadbent: Doc Ansell

D.W. Moffett: Cliff Wyatt

Kenneth Mars: The Magician

UGC Images and Recorded Picture Co. present, in association with Martin Scorsese, a UGC Images production, released by Goldwyn Entertainment Co. Director Clare Peploe. Producers Laurie Parker, Declan Baldwin. Screenplay by Robert Mundy and William Brookfield & Clare Peploe, based on the novel "Miss Shumway Waves a Wand" by James Hadley Chase. Cinematographer John J. Campbell. Editor Suzanne Fenn. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Richard Hartley. Production design Waldemar Kalinowski. Art directors Barry M. Kingston, Brigitte Broch. Set decorators Florence Fellman, Andre Krassoievitch. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.

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