A lazy, crass, sophomoric picture that is easily the front-runner for Sundance’s worst full-length feature (it is currently running away with that dubious distinction), Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic is utterly appalling. Seemingly there for no other purpose than to keep its viewers confused and off-balance, the movie seems to exist simply as a platform to manipulate its audience. And truly, this has to be the lowest form of filmmaking, for anyone can create a piece of art for the sole purpose of antagonism, just as anyone can get a reaction by running into a crowded theater and screaming “fire!”
And while quality films and filmmakers can successfully craft pictures with undesirable leads inside of a foreboding, ominously off-balance universe, the best of this lot do so with a meaningful plot and layered, believable characters. Take, for example, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a haunting film that never quite let its audience or characters get comfortable. Yet that film succeeded because it spoke to a classic human flaw, greed, and followed a character through half a lifetime of self-inflicted torment via his increasing paranoia and self-imposed alienation.
Magic Magic doesn’t seem to try even half that hard. A half-assed mélange of incomplete characters, throw-away visual cues, and incompetent story-telling, it’s almost as if director Sebastian Silva made Magic Magic so that he could sit in the back of the theater, and watch his audience squirm.
Ostensibly the story of Alicia (Juno Temple), an American visiting her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) in Chile, the picture quickly devolves into a series of vignettes that incrementally ratchets up the tension from moment to moment. Yet this is hardly what one could term a suspense thriller in the vein of John Cassavetes, et al, even if the visual texture of Magic Magic practically begs for this kind of comparison. No, tonally all over the map, the film tries to be funny at times via the obnoxious Brink (Michael Cera), yet even this is a miss, and runs hard up against the seemingly endless barrage of scenes designed to unsettle its audience.
Indeed, the characters of Magic Magic are so loosely drawn that one is never quite sure what to believe, for as the film progresses and Alicia’s physical and mental state seem to deteriorate, the audience can never tell if what’s going on on-screen is the reality of the moment, or just the product of some poor girl’s psychosis. Yet watching the film, one almost senses that this is the point, that Sebastian Silva wanted to screw with his audience and their perception of what is going on in the picture. Films that have employed this strategy successfully did so in a way that used this technique as a device to bring about some larger plot and character schematic (i.e. Fight Club), and not simply for the purpose of throwing its audience a curveball just so they could laugh at the ill-timed swing.
Further, because Magic Magic has a threadbare narrative without a central axis point, not to mention characters that make little-to-no sense in terms of the rhyme and reason of their actions, the picture has little to go on except the cache’ of following Temple’s Alicia character, who is only interesting for about five minutes. The girl seems to be losing her mind, yet even this is hard to figure, for again, the director crafts his characters in such a way as to keep his audience guessing about just what in the hell is going on with them and their universe right up until the last shot. This leaves nothing but a collection of scenes that serve little purpose except to increase this overriding menace vibe, one that, again, seems to serve no purpose except to exist in its own right.
When watching Magic Magic, this reviewer was constantly reminded of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games, another picture whose purpose was little more than the emotional torment of its main characters (and by extension, the audience suffering through their ordeal). Though a bold and iconoclastic filmmaking decision, it’s also a cheap maneuver akin to using racially insensitive language simply to stir up a controversy. Indeed, while it’s easy to write or say rude, obnoxious, provocative garbage just to get attention (heels like Ann Coulter make their bread in this business), it’s difficult to draw this strong of a response via thoughtful, responsible work with a meaningful message.
Young children learn this lesson early on, for who hasn’t seen a kid yell something like “FART COOKIES!” in the middle of a busy adult conversation just so they can shock the crowd into silence long enough for their own voice to be heard? Again, though, this is what CHILDREN do. For a filmmaker presenting their picture at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the most sophisticated forums for quality filmmaking in the world, a person can usually hold out hope for something better, something more mature.
In this kind of an environment, it’s rare to come across a film that fails on as many levels as Magic Magic does; whether it is the incomprehensible characters, the meandering/anemic plot, the deplorable pacing, throwaway attempts at symbolism, or the conceit of a director thinking that this is a worthwhile use of a human being’s time (it isn’t), the movie fails…badly. When walking out of the theater, this particular audience member heard another man state flatly, “I’d rather pack my ass full of fireworks and squat over a fire than watch that again.”
Bravo, sir. You took the words right out of this journalist’s mouth.