Thursday, October 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #13: Magic

Why not follow cheesecake with stuff that will make my readers unable to sleep? I walk a weird line with this blog- film blogdom and comic blogdom are two entirely different worlds (converging only with the occasional superhero movie) and when I veer very far into one, I feel a need to swing back wildly towards the other. Plus, my Netflix queue is giving me movies again.

MAGIC is the story of Charles "Corky" Withers (Anthony Hopkins), a struggling magician who, on his first night, stumbles and begins to rant at the audience for not paying any attention. Months later, he returns triumphantly to the club where he bombed, watched by network talent scouts as he transfixes the audience with the assistance of his ventriloquist dummy, Fats. The dummy's schtick provides both misdirection and enough laughs to make Withers a star, and his agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) lands him a deal for a TV pilot. However, Corky backs out of taking the required health exam, panics and flees to his old hometown in the Catskills. He rents a cabin from Peggy Ann Snow (a near-unrecognizable Ann Margret), an old high school crush who is feeling alienated from her oft-absent husband. The two begin to rekindle a relationship, and soon are having an affair. But there's a problem: it seems Fats has an unnatural hold on Corky, as ventriloquist dummies often do, and Withers has a hard time being himself without Fats on his knee. The problem is exacerbated when Greene tracks him down and decides that Corky needs to see a psychiatrist, and gets even worse when Peggy Ann's husband Duke (Ed Lauter) returns.

So the central premise is nothing new; the ventriloquist as split personality is an old movie cliché, and I was vaguely reminded of Chuck and Bob from the classic series SOAP (particularly when Chuck, with Bob stolen from him, desperately tries to make puppets out of a grapefruit, a banana, an English muffin and a pitcher of orange juice.) However, a good execution can make a stale idea seem fresh, and MAGIC is a professional effort all around. William Goldman, adapting his novel, constructs a psychological thriller that's essentially character-driven; Corky and Peggy are both well-drawn, believable figures, and their relationship develops in a natural way. It's touching even as a tragic fate becomes inevitable. Even Fats, as he comes to embody Corky's darker side, is difficult to nail down; he acts as a voice of self-preservation and concern for Corky's career, as well as a general id. Sir Richard Attenborough directs with a surprisingly Hitchcockian flair, at least as the thriller angle develops. It's not something he's known for, and it seems he took this gig just to get financing for GANDHI, but he knows what he's doing.

It's not surprising that the film really stands out due to its performances. We all know Anthony Hopkins can play crazy; here, he plays crazy and sane in fits, as well as effectively giving two performances. Corky undergoes moments of growth and maturity before it all falls apart, and he makes the character sympathetic enough for his fate to really hurt. The high point is easily a scene where Greene, unconvinced of Corky's sanity, gives him a simple test: "Make Fats shut up for five minutes." It proves difficult. Meanwhile, Ann Margret tones down her normal levels of glamour and is effective as a warm but tired woman stuck in a very bad situation.

The film does lack any real explanation for just when and how Corky became unhinged, as well as any detail of how he came up with the whole dummy act in the first place. Neither of these are crucial pieces of information, but it would have been nice to have them. I also wonder if the very last scene doesn't twist the knife just a bit much.

Honestly, I rented MAGIC primarily out of interest in seeing the above TV spot about which others have raved (by the time I discovered YouTube it was already on my queue.) But I'm glad to have seen it; it's a slick, sad little chiller which plays more as tragedy than suspense, and it showcases some amazing acting. A curiosity that's definitely worth your time.

Grade: A-

And this post took far too long to write, so that's it for this week, I think. Will begin writing again as soon as I finish the first draft of my audio drama.

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