On Golden Wand

Rough Magic conjures up loopy legerdemain

In a season of lumbering, big-screen circuses, Rough Magic provides a rowdy, creative side show. It's the kind of haywire high-wire act that suspends the laws of science and grows more involving and comical with every artful near-fall. It's about magic as both illusion and genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively, pitting Establishment hypocrites of the 1950s against a volatile, sometimes supernatural misfit.

Myra (Bridget Fonda) is an L.A. magician's assistant in a show called "Rough Magic." Her engagement to Cliff Wyatt (D.W. Moffett), a uranium honcho turned politician, kicks the film into gear with refreshing abruptness. Marriage will make Cliff a more palatable candidate, and Myra is a perfect bride--she has no strings attached, being young, pretty, single and an orphan. Myra says yes because she's part sorceress, part gold digger, lured by fancy digs in chic cities and a town-size ranch in Argentina. The star of the magic show and Myra's mentor, Ivan (Kenneth Mars), urges her to resist Cliff and stay true to her calling. One thing leads to another and Myra winds up hightailing it across the border to Mexico with a smoking-gun roll of film that incriminates her fiance--who is hot on her trail. And that's when director Clare Peploe unloads her full bag of tricks.

As in her debut film, the seductively enchanting High Season (1987), Peploe uses exotic locales to catalyze farce, mystery and lovemaking. In Mexico, Myra teams up with a Bogart-cynical reporter (Russell Crowe) and a British quack (Jim Broadbent) who's on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. Together they rove into the Mayan heartland, amid a mystical aura generated by the physical ruins of a vanished civilization and the craggy grandeur of their surroundings. This lost world has spiritual and emotional dimensions, but it never evaporates into New Age fog. The action is too prickly and goofy for that. All the characters, from the conventional to the quirky, are rife with impurities. And the intrigue is continuous. When Myra meets the quack, he's street-hawking a poor cousin of the elixir as a cure for constipation; Myra makes his sales skyrocket with some spontaneous wizardry. The reporter, working for Cliff's minions, finds Myra but falls hard for her and quickly switches loyalties.

The three unite to seek the potion, but for quite different reasons. The doctor, hoping to make a mint, needs Myra because the enchantress who mixes the drug will only entrust it to a woman. Myra pursues it in reverence for Ivan the magician. And the reporter wants only to protect Myra. Yet they share a passion for experience and a yen for self-knowledge that transcend Cliff's clout.

In a slap-happy fantasy framework, this movie calls a halt to the nostalgia for the '50s and the drug hysteria that have held sway in pop culture since the Reagan era. Peploe views Americans' desire for surface calm and rationality, and their belief in a planned future, as emotional constipation--which is precisely what the divine drink unstops. The consciousness-expanding Mayan drug forces those who take it to see deeply into themselves, intensifying what they already are. What's original about Rough Magic is that it operates like that elixir: In the midst of fights, chases and slapstick gimmickry, it compels you to study each hero or villain to guess whether angels or demons will spring out. And Peploe utilizes the magician's art of misdirection. She knits the unpredictability of the characters into the plot--you understand what happens in the beginning only when it all comes together in the end. The finale provokes the magical euphoria that bubbles up when you feel that everything's set right.

Rough Magic has a cardsharp's narrative. Objects as oddly assorted as a belt tassel and a wedding ring flip through the story and conjure a zigzag architecture. Midway through, after swigging the potion, Myra develops powers she can't control; at one point, she lays a tarantula egg. But the director's readiness to play tough with her characters, and the romantic undertow that she and her stars generate, keeps the silliness suspenseful and appealing. Fonda and Crowe give their stylized dialogue conviction and are simultaneously strong and pliable--ideal casting for a yarn that twists lovers into pretzels. Broadbent plays the quack with gusto, wisdom and authority--he must, to bring off phrases like "As the Fates would have it . . ." And the supporting performers spike the atmosphere--especially Latino comic Paul Rodriguez as a gleefully despicable gas-station attendant, Euva Anderson in a double role as his slatternly wife and the potion's brew-mistress, and the redoubtable Barkley as Broadbent's sidekick, a Jack Russell terrier who, for a time, becomes the incomparable best of man's best friends.

A Jack Russell terrier also figured in Jim Carrey's occult blockbuster The Mask; it's a relief for a film as potentially tony as this one to recall pop phenomena like Carrey's hit and Mickey Mouse's finest moment--the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Fantasia. This movie may be a spree, but it's an achievement to cook up an environment in which arbitrary acts come off as strokes of fate. Rough Magic is a heady concoction: a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" with a different kind of mickey in it.

Rough Magic
Directed by Clare Peploe; with Bridget Fonda, Russell Crowe, Jim Broadbent, D.W. Moffett, Kenneth Mars and Paul Rodriguez.

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