“I’m not saying I’m against women’s rights, I’m just saying there’s no market for their films,” insists vainglorious action star Peter (Chris D’Elia) to his miserable development assistant and girlfriend Honey (Heather Graham). He’s a ridiculous man and it’s a ridiculous line, but one suspects that Graham, here making her writing and directing debut after decades as eye candy, has heard similar riffs during her career. Her Wiccan romantic comedy “Half Magic” is one part wish fulfillment, two parts justified fury. When Peter sneers, “Your directing career hasn’t gotten off the ground yet because you look like a big-booby dummy,” it’s too easy to picture Graham going home from yet another lousy meeting to furiously type out frustrations which play out here in all-caps Comic Sans.
The question is: Can Graham prove powerful people like Peter wrong? She’s made a proudly feminine film about three friends — Honey, unhappily divorced fashion designer Eva (Angela Kinsey), and bubbly mystic Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) — who meet in a self-actualization seminar where they tickle each other with peacock feathers, honor their “bodacious tatas,” and cheer while Mistress Valesca (Molly Shannon) hoots, “My pussy is a genius!” Imagine “The Craft” if the girls wasted 20 years on yoga before before switching to stronger magic. By the flicker of Candy’s spell-casting candles, the trio form a casual coven to welcome good vibes and expel bad ones, i.e. unworthy men.
With rare exception, every guy who strolls onto Graham’s set is a fiend. Men barge into scenes simply to mansplain what women are doing wrong. Eva’s ex Darren (Thomas Lennon) dumped her for a teen, and Candy’s spent two years casually seeing a dude (Alex Beh) who expects her to do his laundry while he dates other women. The fellows are aware the culture is changing. Peter boasts that his next film is going to include more female characters … and his working title is “Kill the Sluts.” Graham’s dialogue is a master class in macho mind-warping where creeps use the language of female empowerment to get what they want. Even the muscle-strapped himbo named Freedom (Luke Arnold) whom Honey seizes upon as her sexual salvation uses liberation to bend her to his will. She shoots their love scenes with a swirly, light-dappled ecstasy — but also adds an uncomfortable close-up of him leaning in for a kiss. Honey, a people-pleaser, doesn’t dare recoil. But the audience does.
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The actors are game to get vile, especially the terrifically loathsome D’Elia, who announces a trip to the loo with the crotch-centered phraseology of an insecure boy. Yet, Graham doesn’t absolve women, either. They’re guilty of accepting too much and questioning too little. After burning their witchcraft candles, the ladies clutch at quick fixes. Eva might meet the perfect guy (Jason Lewis), but can’t break the spell of her attraction to cads, or embrace her 40-something body as-is. Candy can slam the door on her noncommittal man, yet she’s quick to open it when he swears he’ll think about being her boyfriend. And instead of quitting Peter’s latest misogynist movie, Honey merely uses his words — his terms — to propose a small tweak: “What if the sluts fight the killer?” Another woman nods that the change would let them film more bouncing boobs.
No one is woke, which works with Graham’s stiff acting technique. Her character delivers lines like a Sleeping Beauty gently roused into awareness of her own limbs and brain. “Half Magic” links Honey’s passivity to a lifetime of being cleaved from her own desires, starting with her childhood priest (Johnny Knoxville) who screamed that premarital relations were a straight shot to hell. In an early sex scene with Peter, as Honey dully agrees that she’s a dirty little girl, she’s so checked out from her own body that it might as well not even be in the scene.
Comedians Kinsey and Beatriz play their parts looser, like back-up singers free to showboat on the mic. Still, the three female leads are harmonizing the same theme: women need to love themselves, a note Graham hits repeatedly in different keys so her audience will hear it. (She’s not getting much auditory competition from Moby’s faint score.)
“Half Magic” is hobbled by a debut director’s desire to be liked. But Graham’s passion is sincere, even if her tone and rushed pace — the byproduct of cramming in every idea in case she doesn’t get a second chance — teeters on sitcom. There’s a painfully good zing to a subplot about how Peter continually squashes Honey’s career. He likes her parroting his ideas about success, not piping up with script adjustments in meetings with their financier. “A person can be smart and have big boobs,” argues Honey, “and people are gonna watch my movie and love it!”
“Love” is strong, and it’s hard to imagine that “Half Magic” will earn enough money to make men like Peter wear their stubble as a hair shirt. Yet, in those observant scenes, it’s clear Graham has stacks of stories to tell and the drive to tell them. She needs to exhale, focus, and make bolder creative choices. But here’s a vote that Graham can someday prove herself right.