EXPECTATIONS: Imagine my disappointment when I learned this wasn't a sequel to the 1978 Anthony Hopkins evil-dummy flick Magic.
REALITY: In the week since I first rented Magic Magic, I've agonized over how to review it. Part of this, I think, stems from the title, which is as meaningless as Potato Potato or any other random word repeated. Then again, it's also difficult to critique a film that succeeds precisely because it plays against expectations from the first few minutes and spends the next ninety asking us to figure out just what kind of a horror film we're watching.
At least the premise is intriguing. Alicia (Juno Temple) flies to Chile to spend a few days with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), a college student who's made at least three new friends in Santiago: Brink (Michael Cera), an American exchange student who might be a sociopath; her boyfriend, Agustín (Agustín Silva), a Chilean psychology student; and Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), whose character is never clearly defined. Called back to Santiago after what might be a manufactured emergency, Sarah leaves Alicia in their company as they venture to a cabin for a few days of sun, cliff-jumping and & mind games.
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Writer/director Sebastián Silva, who apparently made Magic Magic on the quick while he had Cera in Chile to film Crystal Fairy and who's never made a horror film before, establishes a tone of creeping dread and invites us to explore the possible explanations for the foursome's bizarre dynamic. Is Alicia the subject of a grand psychological experiment designed by Agustín and implemented with Sarah's help? Is Brink's inner serial killer beginning to blossom? Is Alicia, jetlagged and oversensitive, making herself an easy target for her cousin's new friends? Does the cabin sit atop ancient tribal burial grounds? Are the natives who live down the road exerting supernatural influence on the group? Was Barbara written into the screenplay at the last minute to gender-balance the group in the women's favor?
As the film churns towards the inevitable, after the options are whittled down to one, Magic Magic finally proves itself to be rather depressing and maybe not really a horror film at all. To write more about the film's plot would be unfair, but just in case, if you absolutely need a pristine viewing experience to enjoy a film that depends so heavily on uncertainty, you should stop reading here. Magic Magic is a lot like Rohtenburg in that it deploys horror tropes in a sad, fucked-up character study. As the ending looms larger, you might think Magic Magic is going to turn away and serve up a happily ever after, but nope: This is a film with the courage of its convictions.
Temple, as usual, turns in a solid performance as a woman whose sleep deprivation, which she combats with mysterious pills (courtesy of Barbara, in one of her lone contributions to the plot), begins to take its toll as she can make less and less sense of her cousin's friends' erratic behavior. And Cera, branching out after he stretched his child actor phase to the breaking point, provides the film's most ambiguous mystery. Is this the worst acting possible, from a man who clearly doesn't understand his role, or better-than-mediocre/honestly-kind-of-good acting? Cera's more precious affectations have never bothered me, but his performance here borders on alien. He giggles as he shoots birds with his pellet gun, reacts inappropriately to almost every line of dialogue, sobs whenever a character dares to call him a bad name, etc. It's a loony performance, especially coming from a 25-year-old man whose character is presumably the same age, and your appreciation for Magic Magic might finally depend on your tolerance for Michael Cera.
Damn, that's a cold-ass honky.Personally, I think Silva has found in Cera what Paul Thomas Anderson found in Adam Sandler when he directed Punch-drunk Love, the psychotic behavior that defines a comic persona once carried to hyper-realistic extremes. Just as Sandler was exposed as a rageaholic, Cera's persona is that of a masturbatory manchild whose first instinct, when confronted by anyone who doesn't behave according to his plan or worldview, is to shut down or lash out. We find it funny when this happens in the safe confines of a comedy like Arrested Development, but horrifying and surreal when it happens in a film like Magic Magic, especially when the other characters can't grasp why he behaves like George-Michael Bluth in a dramatic horror film.
Don't misunderstand me, though. Magic Magic is far from an actors' showcase. Rather, it's a chance for Silva to explore the "weird and boring" boundaries of what can be considered horror. This is the film a young Roman Polanski would have made had he grown up in Chile. Magic Magic may be ponderous and twenty minutes too long, but Silva finds new ways to demonstrate difficult filmic concepts like the unreliable narrator, limited perspective, and diegetic and extra-diegetic sound, and he has a knack for building tension, even at a languid pace. (P.S. You really should try to forget this paragraph should you decide to see this movie. I warned you!)
MINORITY REPORT: Everything you've just described about Michael Cera's performance spells 'magic magic' to me. Acting is already a kind of magic; weird acting just doubles it. -Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade
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