New Release: Magic Magic

DVD release date: August 6, 2013
Starring Juno Temple & Michael Cera
Written & directed by Sebastian Silva

I first heard about this film last month, while sitting at the IFC Center here in New York City, at a Q&A for the semi-comic road movie Crystal Fairy, which was also shot in Chile by director Sebastian Silva, with the same lead actor, Michael Cera. You see, Crystal Fairy was kind of a lark, quickly thrown together while production issues with Magic Magic were being ironed out.

Silva seemed vaguely chagrined at the screening. Both films were completed and had been picked up by American distributors, but Crystal Fairy was getting a small but noteworthy theatrical run while Magic Magic was getting dumped direct-to-DVD. Add to that the fact that Sony had also decided to sell Magic Magic not as an offbeat drama, but as a some kind of cabin-in-the-woods horror movie. It seems like this poor independent movie is being set up to miss an appreciative art-house audience, while being foisted upon sure-to-be-annoyed horror fans.

Yet, after watching both films, it turns out — despite Silva’s best intentions — Magic Magic … well… is the lesser of the two movies. I don’t mean to suggest that it deserves the mistreatment it’s getting from its distributor, but Magic Magic certainly feels more acceptable as a video rental than as a $14 theatrical experience.

Juno Temple’s character takes a trip to Chile, to hang out with her cousin (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning) and her cousin's friends in a secluded country house. From the first moment we see Temple, we get a sense that she is already unsteady — and not just because she's spent a number of hours on a transatlantic flight. Almost immediately, her main source of stability in this foreign environment goes away: Browning has to go back to the city to take care of a mysterious errand, and Temple is left stranded with her cousin's indifferent boyfriend (Agustin Silva, the director's brother), a bitchy girl (Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno) 
who doesn’t like Temple’s choice of “Minnie The Moocher” as car trip music, and a would-be lech with bad social skills played by Michael Cera.

Cera aggressively tries to play against type here, even more than he did as the entitled gringo in Crystal Fairy or as the cartoonish bro version of himself in this summer’s This Is The End. In this role, he’s not just content to play a dick as an antidote to his career-making slew of puppy-boy roles. Instead, he manages to act and create a fully realized malevolent misfit. It’s kind of a shame that the film doesn’t go off into full-on thriller mode, because it seems like Cera could give us a great villain.

Instead, Magic Magic is a bit more wishy-washy about him — possibly to prevent his character from being too one-dimensional, but seemingly just to maintain an overall atmosphere of arty ambiguity. Sure, it seems like Temple’s character is having a breakdown, but a late turn in the plot seems to suggest (oh so vaguely) that maybe she is possessed by… er… magic? Maybe? The movie seems unsure what exactly is happening to Temple, so it’s not sure if it should go for the full-on Polanski-style audience mindfuck or give us distance from her to clinically assess what is actually delusion. Instead, we get a little of both, though not enough of either.

And the ambiguous ending… hoo boy… kind of made me mad. It does nothing to intensify the mystery or give the viewer thoughtful pause about the movie’s events, it’s just kind of like the filmmakers saying, “We built a broken machine. Whatever ending it makes, you’re not going to like. So, instead, please admire its broken design and decide for yourself which bad ending you would prefer.”

The movie gets a lot of credit from me for great performances from a talented cast, but it squanders a lot of potential. In other words, I wouldn’t outright avoid it, but I wouldn’t make a point to send it to the top of your viewing queue.

In My Netflix Queue Since: July 21, 2013
Final rating: