There’s not quite enough magic in Clare Peploe’s uneven but mostly engaging set-in-Mexico road movie. A terrific perf from Bridget Fonda and charismatic support from Russell Crowe are the chief assets in this mixture of romance, fun and inanity.
In adapting British crime writer James Hadley Chase’s neatly titled “Miss Shumway Waves a Wand,” director Peploe and her two script collaborators have come up with a somewhat creaky vehicle that is thoroughly entertaining when it works at full cylinder but dismayingly off-key when it doesn’t.
It’s 1950, and political power brokers have their eyes on Cliff Wyatt as future presidential material; described as “smooth as butter and good-looking as Clark Gable,” the wealthy Wyatt (D.W. Moffet is suitably slimy) is heir to priceless uranium mines, but is handicapped by the fact that he isn’t married. An unlikely alliance is forged with orphaned, virginal Myra Shumway, who works as assistant to a magician, and has learned some amazing tricks of her own.
When Myra sees Wyatt in his true colors, she high-tails it to Mexico with a roll of film incriminating her former finance in the slaying of the magician. She aims to find a famous shaman, supposedly older than Columbus, who lives in a temple in a remote part of the country. Wyatt, meanwhile, sends an agent to locate Myra and the film.
The agent turns out to be Alex Ross (Russell Crowe), a jaded newspaperman who never recovered from witnessing the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki. He’s turned into a drifter, with an eye for the main chance. Myra also stumbles upon a down-and-out English doctor, Ansell (Jim Broadbent), who’s also interested in the shaman. The trio head for the old wizard’s jungle hideout, with Wyatt and other assorted baddies on their trail.
After a slightly shaky opening, in which Peploe doesn’t quite bring off the world of the magician and his rapport with Myra, pic settles into an enjoyable, if old-fashioned, road pic with Fonda and Crowe making an attractive team as opposites who are gradually attracted to one another on the journey south. In a nod to genre films of another era. Alex refers to Myra as Slim. The finale, which tips into way-out fantasy and comedy, is brightly handled, but the film’s overall tone remains uneven and uncertain, and the introduction of a talking dog is likely to provoke unintended guffaws.
“Rough Magic” is a handsome production, with costume designer Richard Hornung deserving special kudos for the snappy threads and great hats in which Fonda appears in the latter half of the film. Special effects, involving the film’s magical elements, are well executed. But the disparate elements don’t mesh together as well as they should.