“Rough Magic” (1995)
by A.J. Hakari
Strangely enough, I blame my affinity for stuff from the ’40s and ’50s on growing up in the ’90s. I happily rode the nostalgia wave that got me into music’s neo-swing movement, entertained me with cinematic treats like Dick Tracy, and made Nick at Nite as big a part of my TV diet as “Power Rangers.” The really clever ones married the period settings with sharp modern hindsight, which Rough Magic sets forth to do but fumbles en route to the altar. For a film with a very clear preference for the mystifying nature of the unknown over the cold logic of science, little of its intended awe comes through, emerging in its stead random patches of weirdness that clash with the more conventional storytelling at work.
In post-WWII Los Angeles, things are looking up for magician’s assistant Myra Shumway (Bridget Fonda). In addition to a big upcoming job in Las Vegas, she’s set to marry a rising politico (D.W. Moffett), in a move that all but guarantees him a Senate seat. But Myra’s boss (Kenneth Mars) has other plans, engineering a scenario that results in him being shot by the nogoodnik fiance, freeing Myra to develop her talents further with a shaman in Mexico. Not to let a loose end in fishnets stand between him and his path to the White House, the fiance hires burnt-out investigator Alex Ross (Russell Crowe) to track her down. But as it turns out, south of the border is where the true magic thrives, as Myra comes to learn that she possesses powers far beyond pulling off a mean card trick.
The film that immediately sprung to mind while watching Rough Magic was Cast a Deadly Spell, in which the usual stock characters of a private eye thriller casually performed supernatural feats on a daily basis. It’s not totally fair to compare the two, since the latter revolves around folks who’ve long since accepted magic into their lives, while the former’s heroine is coming to terms with its actual existence. But it still stands that even with zombies, werewolves, and Lovecraftian beasties running around, Cast a Deadly Spell displayed a fascination with its own world that drew your attention to the plot as much as to the weird window dressing. Not so much with Rough Magic, where the reaction to women pooping out eggs and lecherous gas station attendants being turned into sausages is less like “Cool!” and more like “Huh?!”
Rough Magic is very upfront with what it wants to say. It draws a clear parallel between feminism and the pursuit of a spiritual connection, which frequently finds itself at odds with a scientific/chauvinistic mindset driven solely by reason. In effect, Rough Magic is about Myra breaking away from her male influences and taking control of her destiny, which is just fine. I even liked how Crowe’s gumshoe is no fan of technology himself, having seen what the atomic bomb can do and retreating to a simple life that leaves him open to being turned onto what Myra discovers about herself. But the devil is in the details, and Rough Magic‘s illusions are at their weakest when the specifics are held up to scrutiny. The period decor rings too false, the performers (save for Mars) rarely feel comfortable delivering their dialogue, and, as previously mentioned, the awkward instances of magic we get distance us from the story rather than reel us in.
If Rough Magic accomplishes anything, it’s 1) making Cast a Deadly Spell look that much better (seriously, seek out that nutty flick), and 2) showing us that Russell Crowe got better at handling hard-boiled dialogue. Noble as its aims are, not enough balance is struck between the traditional and the out-of-this-world to make it all gel. Bridget Fonda sure can work a pair of stockings, but Rough Magic doesn’t give you much else to do for the other 102 minutes.