Don’t be misled by the title. It’s not a new movie with Russell, nor is it any allusion to someone he knows, not unless you count the time he played Alex Ross in “Rough Magic.” Then, we get into some interesting things.
Which is why I wanted to take a moment and write about it, as yesterday was the anniversary of the release of “Rough Magic,” with our dear and beloved Man of the Place and Bridget Fonda, with supporting appearances by Jim Broadbent, and Paul Rodriguez. General opinion about the film was and is mixed among the fans – it definitely takes a willingness to suspend a certain level of disbelief to watch. However, Russell doesnt break our trust in delivering an appealing and likeable character.
(some spoilers ahead)
In short, “Rough Magic” was a rather lopsided amalgam of magical realism, road-trip adventure, and 30s/40s era goofy wiseacre comedy, a very loose interpretation of James Hadley Chase’s “hard-boiled comedy,” Miss Shumway Waves a Wand. Taking place five years after the conclusion of WWII, Alex Ross is an amiable bum-slash-reporter-slash-Marine hanging out in Mexico to take what few leads are tossed his way as a way to distract from the haunting memories of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Myra is young wandering magician, snarky but innocent, who has captured the eye of an aspiring politician who has found a way to justify his penchant for showgirls with a less than noble intention: marry the chanteuse and give her the ability to turn his name into a household feature of influence. When her mentor’s death prompts her to flee to Mexico, she encounters a flim-flam artist who claims he has found the ultimate cure for snake bites and has to endure the supremely confident Alex afixing himself to her sojourn into the southern reaches of Latin America. From there, the two encounter a variety of adventures that get progressively weirder as magic takes a hold of their imagination and personalities. When Myra learns of a way to reinforce/increase her magic, she embarks on a side-trip that has Alex wondering if he might not have been smarter to return to New York and take his lumps like a lonely man should. Intersecting with their attempts to find the mother-lode of magical elixirs from a local Huichol tribe is the pursuit of a very angry husband and a self-assured medicine-woman.
While I have a certain fondness for this film because of its locations and quirky use of shamanistic conventions, I am not so biased as to wish t I am always reluctant to bash actors in roles that they take on, unless they are truely incapable of the task of immersing themselves in a character. It sometimes felt as if the director stepped away from the camera and another person with a more “rustic” sense of humor stepped in to insert the kind of scenes Judd Apatow would appreciate. Some like that sort of thing, some don’t. I don’t, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing the charm and talent that Russell brought to an otherwise “loosely” sketched role. He proved once again (in the US at least – his first American exposure was as Cort, in “The Quick and the Dead”) his ability to shine like a beacon, in spite of material that would otherwise weigh an actor down.
Comparing the movie to its original source won’t do you any good either, as there were quite a few liberties taken with the canon. In the book, there is no Alex, only Ross Millan, and the only similarities in background the two share is the newspaper connection and the promise of a reward if he delivers Myra to the bankroller. In the movie’s case, that entity is embodied in Myra’s ambitious fiance, who is the heir to a technology empire. In the book, Myra’s antagonist is a duplicitous newspaper mogul who happens to be her father. In the book, Ross says nothing of being a veteran of WWII, nor of any particular assignment to photograph the aftermath of Hiroshima, as the movie briefly lines out for Alex; in fact, Ross Millan goes as far as to blow off a pointed question by Myra about his background with a “let’s not talk about that right now.” No injury, no deeply agonized soul. Alex of the film is decidedly more gentle in his approach of Myra, but no less enchanted by her antics and even blames himself when things go horribly wrong. Ross Millan is more circumspect in the book. Movie Myra is not as streetwise as the book Myra, a lot more innocent in terms of the machinations of the people around her. Book Myra can see what her father and Ross Millan are doing miles away and surprises them with a few machinations of her own. Movie Myra’s journey is more crystalized into a theme of life and love.
Russell carries off the swagger and tilt of the intended era with a natural ease, something very rare these days. Unfortunately, I also harbored a bias against Bridget Fonda: I did not feel she was his match in chemistry. At times, I felt Fonda was acting “around” Crowe, rather than connecting with him as so many 40s and 50s couples achieved with aplomb. This is not to say she is not accomplished in other roles. I just found myself more irritated than sympathetic, in spite of the fondness in Alex’s voice when he called her “Slim”. To be fair, I also think the script suffered from an identity crisis (re: comments about the crudity of some scenes) – nostalgic comedy with a supernatural twist or Saturday Night Live parody? I really wish the director had been more faithful to the book.
Oh, what the hell…I’m a sucker for fedoras.
Anyway, be prepared, but don’t be too harsh, either. Russell absolutely delivers a swoon-worthy character.
Movie Night Suggestion: include in your viewing “A Winter’s Tale” and the early 80s cult favorite, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,“Break out your Xhosa and Khoisa dictionaries (the exclamation point will never be the same for you) and serve Mexican beer with your slice of wedding cake (no sausages, though!) Oh, and don’t forget the rabbits and Huichol sarapes.