In a season of lumbering big-screen circuses, Rough Magic provides a rowdy creative sideshow. 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 illusion and magic as genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively. This period piece with attitude pits Establishment hypocrites of the 1950s, who think they know what's right and how to get it, against a volatile, sometimes-supernatural misfit.
Myra (Bridget Fonda) is an L.A. magician's assistant in a show aptly called "Rough Magic." Her engagement to Cliff Wyatt (D.W. Moffett), a uranium honcho turned politician, kicks the film into gear with refresh-ing abruptness. Cliff wants to wed Myra because marriage makes a candidate more palatable and 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. Cliff shoots Ivan -- and Myra captures him in the act with a still camera. With Cliff hot on her tail, she tries to get lost south of the border, hanging on to her smoking-gun roll of film for self-protection. And that's when the 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 Alex Ross (Russell Crowe), a Bogart-cynical reporter, and Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a British quack who's on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. As they rove into the Mayan heartland, the movie generates a mystic aura: The physical ruins of a vanished civilization merge with the craggy grandeur of the surroundings. This lost world has spiritual and emotional dimensions, but it never evaporates into a New Age fog. The action is too prickly and goofy. All the characters, from the conventional to the quirky, are rife with impurities. And the intrigue is continuous. When Myra meets Doc Ansell, he's street-hawking a poor cousin of the potion as a cure for constipation; Myra makes his sales skyrocket with some spontaneous wizardry, then takes off with his money when he rewards her meagerly. Ross, working for Cliff's minions, spots her quickly but switches loyalties as he falls hard for her. These three unite to seek the potion for quite different reasons. Doc hopes to make a mint, and needs Myra because the enchantress who mixes the drug won't entrust it to a man. Myra is paying tribute to her father figure, Ivan. And Ross 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 hysteria over drugs that have been pop-culture standbys 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 into themselves, making them more of 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 Doc Ansell with gusto, wisdom, and authority -- it takes an actor like Broadbent 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 Doc Ansell'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.