Monday, February 2, 2009
The 30-second TV spot for 1978’s MAGIC, featuring a famously creepy looking ventriloquist’s dummy, was apparently traumatizing for a lot of kids. I remember seeing the ad at the time, but don’t remember it causing me any sleepless nights. The strange thing about looking at it now is that the voice of the dummy sounds different than it does in my memory. But I guess that’s what memory does. I also have a very, very vague recollection of the film playing at the National Theater (now the site of the Good Morning America studio) when I was taken with my family downtown on Thanksgiving morning to see the annual Macy’s parade and we would have stood right around there. Beats me how I remember this, but research tells me the film did indeed play at that theater (Years later I saw a BACK TO THE FUTURE marathon there). So I guess it’s kind of a surprise that I never wound up actually seeing MAGIC until now. So much for the mystique it had over me.
When we first meet aspiring magician Corky (Anthony Hopkins) he has experienced a disastrous set at a local nightclub’s amateur night. It’s not that he’s bad at magic, but he has no onstage personality and his ailing mentor who he calls Merlin tells him that he just needs to find himself “some charm”. When he next meet Corky, it’s a year later and he’s back playing the same club but apparently having found that charm he’s now a big success; he still does the magic act, only now it’s alongside his foul-mouthed dummy Fats. His cigar-chomping agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) is very optimistic that the big time is near and has a whole plan in motion (“the same kind of low-key buildup we gave Steve Martin last year”) but just as NBC wants to sign a deal for Corky to star in his own special, possibly leading to a series, the magician flips out over being forced to take a medical exam by the network. He disappears, heading to the depressed Catskills town where he grew up where he rents a cottage from his former high-school crush, the now-unhappily married Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). The two hit it off and, as the romance Corky once dreamed of is coming true, the voice of Fats that is in his own head speaks to him constantly, gradually becoming more and more possessive of Corky.
The most surprising thing for me about MAGIC, directed by Richard Attenborough four years before GANDHI, was that for a film whose greatest notoriety was apparently a commercial that managed to scare kids (it’s also used on the DVD menu), it’s actually kind of a depressing experience. The lead character isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic in any way and anything that gets us interested in him feels like it’s brought to the table by Hopkins, not by the script. The characters in this story feel like they’re approaching middle-age and seem pretty depressed about their situation—actually, Ann-Margret says that she hasn’t seen Hopkins in fifteen years and if she’s referring to the end of high school that means that the characters are younger than I am. Great, thanks very much for bumming me out. The structure of the script feels rather odd at first, seeming to hop through the first few sequences not giving us much info about the character or even how much time is passing before it settles down to its primary location. I fully admit that when I sat down to watch it I knew next to nothing about the plot beyond the dummy from the commercial and the presence of Anthony Hopkins, so when we reached the house in the Catskills and I realized that this is where we were going to stay I couldn’t help but think, “So is this going to be the whole movie?” The first ten or so minutes of the film which culminate in Fats proclaiming “We’re gonna be a star…” is actually the most interesting part of the film and feels like it promises something more than what turns out to be basically a four character piece (five if you count Fats—there is, of course, the expected ambiguity involving him). Frankly, the rundown setting of the Catskills just becomes kind of a downer by a certain point. The film was written by William Goldman from his own novel, which I haven’t read, but I wonder if the inner turmoil between Corky and Fats may have just played better on the page. Richard Attenborough also doesn’t seem the right choice for this sort of movie—at the least, he doesn’t seem to have any affinity for this sort of material and any sensitivity he brings to the drama feels at times misplaced like the “thriller” element is not having enough attention paid to it.
The dummy known as Fats is pretty creepy, I’ll give it that much. Frankly, it comes off as so creepy that it’s surprising no one in the movie ever comes out and says as much. Do we really believe that Corky, with zero stage presence, is such a sensation with Fats that NBC is thinking about basing an entire series around him (for that matter, I think variety shows were dying out by this point). “He’s just as cute as he is on the tube!” screams Ann-Margret when she first lays eyes on him and all I could think was, really? He’s actually supposed to be cute? To give it credit, the film at least takes its time with its characters (some might think too much, although this wasn’t what bothered me), but it never feels quite right, maybe because Richard Attenborough just isn’t the right person for this sort of material. It’s not that a blood bath is needed but maybe it just needed a little more punch—when characters drink from a bottle of J&B it just made me think of certain sleazy Italian films and I wished that this movie could loosen up a little as well. For a horror movie with an R rating it’s pretty mild—just about the most shocking thing about the entire film may just be the brief Ann-Margret nudity we get during one bedroom scene. Ann-Margret topless? Let’s hear it for the 70s! You never know what you’re going to find.
Hopkins is certainly forceful in the part—it certainly isn’t an issue of him not having enough presence--but without much of a trace of normalcy it never feels like there’s anything to connect with. Ann-Margret isn’t bad but is possibly miscast and feels a little lost at the whims of the story—how many movies did the actress make after around 1975 where it feels like her appearance is wasted? Watching Burgess Meredith constantly fiddle with his cigar (“Take two, they’re big.”) made me wonder if they went to George Burns for the part first—if that’s the case, I’m going to say that they wound up with the right guy. Meredith gives the best, most seemingly effortless performance here, becoming more layered than the hammy agent stereotype you think he’s going to be at first and a nice reminder of how good an actor he was. The always reliable Ed Lauter turns up late in the film as Ann-Margret’s bully of a husband. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is given a novel twist by having the sound of a harmonica represent the whims of Fats and a few of the more lyrical passages seem to anticipate his later themes for TWILIGHT ZONE – THE MOVIE (this reminds me that one of the most famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” of course involved a dummy, but never mind).
The tagline on the MAGIC poster is “A Terrifying Love Story” and it feels like there’s not enough of the first half of that declaration and the second half of it just plays out as a little misguided. And for all its emphasis on the love story, the preoccupations with the nature of magic, illusion and the oft-repeated phrase “misdirection” throughout never feel as focused as they should be. There are things in there that I liked but I repeatedly found myself thinking that I should have been responding to it more than I actually was. That commercial, on the other hand, is still pretty effective and a nice throwback to when a talking dummy still had the power to actually scare people. It’s not actually in the movie, but it’s still the most effective part of it.