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By Stephanie Zacharek
The germ of Clare Peploe's complex fantasy of the heart, Rough Magic, is a sweet, obscure piece of pulp fiction called Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, written in 1944 by an all-but-forgotten novelist named James Hadley Chase. To say that Peploe, once an assistant to Bertolucci and Antonioni, has transformed the material is to vastly understate the case. She's moved it ahead into 1950 and the dawn of the Cold War. She's usefully mixed things up genre-wise by throwing in elements of screwball comedy, film noir, romantic adventure and road movie. She's imparted an umistakably contemporary feminist spin that enriches the original novel's none-too-clear concerns. And she's zipped up the entire proceeding with a brand of deadpan surrealist farce that Luis Bunnuel himself might admire.
Not too bad for a filmmaker whose best-known previous effort was 1987's High Season, a romantic bomb set in the Greek islands and notable only for its stunning views of Jacqueline Bisset.
Here, we have Bridget Fonda, arguably the most gifted (and undeniably the wittiest) member of a celebrated Hollywood family, as a pretty, pretty hard-bitten Los Angeles magician's assistant named Myra Shumway. Part femme fatale, part pure seeker, Myra's a quick-fingered lass, and there's a dark gleam in her eye, not least when, in the first scene, she blithely starts pulling white rabbits from the suit pockets of an elevator full of startled businessmen--so she can leave her business card in their places. Myra's an illusionist in other ways, too. For one thing, she's agreed to marry the classic Mr. Wrong, an oily, mustachioed playboy named Wyatt (D.W. Moffett) who's made a fortune in uranium mining (this is the Atomic Age, after all) and sees his fiancee only as decoration in a campaign for the Senate.
Fortunately, there's more to Myra than that. When her boss and mentor (Kenneth Mars) is shot, she has the good sense to honor his last wish and set out in her yellow Buick convertible for the jungles of Mexico, where her gift can bloom. There a Mayan shaman named Tojola, who's been cooking up some powerful medicine of the self for years, will eventually show her American visitor the difference between mere trickery and real magic.
Are we getting pretty far afield here? Sure, and why not? Indiana Jones, Sam Spade and Aldous Huxley would all enjoy the trip south, where the heroine gets involved in hallucinogenic hocus-pocus with a cynical American newspaper reporter called Alex Ross (Russell Crowe) and an English quack (Jim Broadbent) who's hawking a "magic" elixir as phony as Tojola's real thing is potent.
Director Peploe has a lovely sense of the scenery, which includes a beautiful wreck of a Mexican gas station and a couple of wonderfully seedy hotel rooms. But she is even better at eliciting lively performances from her actors--and at stringing us along with her own series of magical illusions. When Myra, transformed by the potion, suddenly finds herself able to literally lay a mysterious blue egg or turn a man into a sausage, it's startling but not unbelievable. The movie's spell is at work on us. And when Peploe (working with co-writer William Brookfield) starts soft-selling us on religion over science and love over practicality--combatants in the real Cold Wars--it's difficult not to fall right into step. So charming is Peploe's own magic (one of the staples of moviedom, is it not?) that we willingly accept all but her goofiest reaches.
Fueled by his dreams and a quart of tequila, the phony English doc burbles: "Anything can happen." He's right. By the end, Peploe manages to infuse mysticism with antic comedy, reveal the souls of people in the process of self-discovery, and even stage a wonderful shambles of a wedding in which a dog speaks up for itself and the bridegroom, having seen the light at last, does the same. If there's a unifying theme in the middle of Rough Magic's bizarre tangle of styles, tones and moods, it's the old magician's simple dictum that "magic comes from the heart."
In the hands of some other filmmaker and a less talented cast, that might come off as the warbling of a soggy sentimentalist. Juiced up with the high wit and underlying intelligence of a movie this inventive, we can't help but believe--if only until the next illusionist in our own lives deals us one from the bottom of the deck.
Screenplay by Clare Peploe and William Brookfield. Directed by Clare Peploe. With Bridget Fonda, Russell Crowe, Jim Broadbent and D.W. Moffett.
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