Your film stars a who’s who of young, on-the-rise actors who carry brand-name recognition within the independent film world: Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”), talented and versatile British actress Juno Temple (“Killer Joe," “Jack And Diane," “The Dark Knight Rises,"“The Three Musketeers,” Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch,” "Sleeping Beauty") and Catalina Sandino Moreno (breakthrough actress and star of “Maria Full of Grace”). Your filmmaker, Sebastián Silva, is the celebrated director behind of 2009’s excellent indie “The Maid” (Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner), your cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, is well regarded as one of the most excellent DPs on the planet, and your film debuts at the prestigious 2013 Sundance Film Festival. So, bearing all those riches in mind, your movie goes straight to DVD...why exactly? Perhaps two films by the same director with the same actor (Silva's "Crystal Fairy" starring Cera also unspooled at Sundance — review here) cannibalizes the lesser one (though “Magic Magic” boasts the bigger name cast, Cera only has a supporting role in this one as opposed to the lead in “Crystal Fairy”) and/or perhaps it’s just that, taken on its own, “Magic Magic” is a would-be mental duress portrait cum psychological horror that just doesn’t convince in either genre.
Temple stars as Alicia, a meek, insecure American tourist who’s come to Chile to visit her cousin Sarah (Browning), who’s studying abroad. Already apprehensive, awkward and jetlagged from the trip, Alicia is sorely out of her element and sticks out like a sore thumb among Sarah’s best friends; her Chilean boyfriend Agustín (Agustín Silva, the director’s younger brother), the unfriendly and short-tempered Barbara (Moreno), and Brink (Cera), the obnoxiously extroverted hanger-on friend desperate for attention. Already feeling out of sorts from this unwelcoming bunch, the 15-hour-plus travel time to rural Chile to meet her friend has given Alicia a bad case of insomnia, which only exacerbates her quickly-escalating alienation.
Frayed around the edges, just as Alicia needs some reassuring psychological terra firma around her, Sarah has to suddenly leave the group and take her mid-term exams, leaving Alicia in the company of her cousin's chilly and indifferent friends. And the more the young girl is out of her comfort zone, the worse her insomnia gets. Fried from sleep deprivation, Alicia’s mind seems to slowly unravel, and the distinction between what is reality and what is imagined becomes confusingly blurred. “Seems” being the operative word here, as it’s never quite clear what's happening, and the uncertainty of the film doesn’t work in its favor the way it does with most what-is-actually-happening reality-benders. The ambiguity is obviously the point, but the truth is it’s unevenly constructed.
Alicia eventually enters what is nothing less than a vague waking nightmare, and madness begins to creep up as she hears voices and such, but it’s hard to tell if she’s just super sensitive and sheltered or genuinely disturbed as the character is written and performed as histrionic and nearly hysterical from minute one. Moreover, in attempting to create an unsettling and unsure atmosphere, trapping all the characters in a claustrophobic cabin where everyone gets on each other’s nerves, Silva ends up creating a mostly unpleasant film that’s more frustrating than it is haunting, disturbing or engaging. The inhospitable characters that “welcome” Alicia don’t help; neither does the protagonist herself who is immediately clingy and needy from the onset which never endears the audience to her or her plight. Sure, Sarah’s friends are designed to be cold, distant, aloof, but they do so with such zeal that they’re truly unlikeable. Collectively, they represent a common frustration of the horror movie mien; exaggerating one-dimensional characters, rather than acting like real human beings, because often they are simply emotional or psychological tools to work against the protagonist. Granted, Silva’s characters aren’t as empty and hollow as the average cheapo horror and there is some texture underneath, but not enough to add any significant weight.
Barbara is an especially hostile, Agustín possesses a mild trace of empathy, but the MVP of asshole is without question Cera’s Brink. By design, Brink is insecure and masks his apprehension with a loud, shrill, irritating personality. But more disconcerting is the way Brink’s confused sexual identity is exploited by the film to advance its plot and throw off the mental equilibrium. Clearly closeted and in love with his best friend Augustin, Brink’s queasy fey, feminine slink makes him the kind of pranksterish Cheshire cat of the group. But his manipulative, devilish behavior is rather questionable when the movie essentially tries to pin his built-in animosity at Alicia on his own sexual repression. And Sarah’s just there, a non-entity who is mostly just into her boyfriend and not all that concerned about her cousin. All that being said, it's Cera's character who is the one (barely) likeable element of the movie as a whole. His Espanol is very good and clearly he studied, and it’s nice to see him take on a very different character that we’ve seen him take on previously, but he doesn’t have much to work with, aside from the aforementioned uncomfortable traits his character owns.
Silva’s film is meant to provoke and unnerve rather than scare and that’s completely fine, but there’s an apocryphal nature at work that feels disingenuous and manipulative (and the third act “twist” just becomes rather silly and arguably jumps the shark too). But rather than building up a believable character-based mental breakdown, Silva creates a mostly plot-driven film which feels more like an exercise in psychological horror than the genuine article. A critical element that’s missing is an ounce of empathy for anyone on screen.
Narratively the picture is stacked against Alicia from the get-go which is maddening. You can tell the movie is hell bent on exploring a psychological madness, but never earns its way down this road, instead choosing a series of contrived and inorganic conceits to manipulatively push her (and the audience) into a corner. Aiming for Polanski-esque thrills (the movie feels like “Repulsion” meets one of his cabin-in-the-woods single-setting chamber pieces ala “Death and the Maiden”), “Magic Magic” just doesn’t possess the same kind of finesse and artfulness as the auteur it idolizes.
There’s a terrific ensemble at the heart of “Magic Magic,” including its talented director, but this psychological horror is only creepily superficial and has very little of anything insightful to say about people, its characters or its lead. A muddled, uneven and disappointing misfire, there's a reason this one skipped theaters entirely. [C-]
"Magic Magic" is now available on DVD via Sony Pictures.