Shaggy Manhattan auteur Onur Tukel’s latest film isn’t entirely new: Originally conceived as an ongoing TV series, “Black Magic for White Boys” premiered at Tribeca a couple of years ago as several preliminary episodes. But when prospects didn’t pan out in that format, he shot additional footage to create the current feature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result still has a loose, episodic feel, with a somewhat casual attitude toward the concept of “narrative arc” — qualities not at all at odds with Tukel’s prior output.
This ensemble comedy with a silly supernatural angle, centered on a decrepit Off Off Broadway theater, won’t be its maker’s belated breakthrough. But for those who grok his amiably misanthropic, offhand brand of humor, it will comprise another satisfyingly idiosyncratic chapter in a singular career that carries forward a trail previously blazed by the likes of Woody Allen, Henry Jaglom and Amerindie types from to Alexandre Rockwell to Joe Swanberg.
Cranky old Larry (Ronald Guttman) is the Parisian impresario of a tiny New York legit theater whose seats are rarely filled these days by his tired magic act, performed with assistants Dean (Colin Buckingham) and Lucy (Eva Dorrepaal). Indeed, business is so bad he’s in danger of losing the venue, being resistant to sharing it with any other groups that might supplement the rent.
Despite the anxious warnings of his wife that he not try to salvage their fortunes by dabbling in actual magic — something that evidently has led to woe before — he duly makes use of a spell book in his possession. Now able to make audience members disappear and reappear at will, he’s a huge hit at the box office. But the dark arts prove corrupting, natch, and the temptation to make anyone troublesome (such as that nagging wife) disappear permanently proves hard to resist.
Meanwhile, others wonder if Larry’s supernatural powers can help them, too. Oscar (Tukel), a middle-aged trust fund layabout, finds his happy joblessness threatened by the financial demands of blind date Chase (Charlie LaRose), who swore she couldn’t have children, yet brought a pregnancy test kit on their one-night stand. As she refuses abortion, he seeks some other way to make the kid (and/or expectant mother) disappear. Likewise, real estate hustler Jamie (Lou Jay Taylor) wants to make longtime homeowners and tenants vanish so he can ride the gentrification wave to personal riches.
Sorcery isn’t the only miracle fix here: Local drug dealer Fred (Franck Raharinosy) travels with a case of improbable pharmaceuticals that can apparently resolve any complaint for the right price. Thus Lucy’s horribly crass boyfriend Ralphie (a very funny Brendan Miller) realizes he needs a new personality — and actually gets one. Meanwhile Dean, who also fancies Lucy and feels limited by dwarfism, wants a pill that will make him attractively tall.
Such magical changes are presented in ways that are as deliberately implausible and technically simple as they were on TV’s “Bewitched.” There’s no attempt at fantastical atmospherics here, let alone suspense or menace; the very notion of supernatural goings-on is part of the overall joke.
More serious, if still humorously presented, is the film’s observation of how greed is turning the funky, multicultural Big Apple into a sterile, monochrome, upscale investment scheme. An ersatz Greek chorus has African-American residents at a bus stop complaining about how their city is vanishing. By the end of this shambling comedy, they’ve largely vanished as well.
Organized somewhat arbitrarily in titled chapters, “Black Magic” isn’t much to look at — it was clearly originally intended for home screens — but it’s full of amusingly conceived and played characters in unpredictable situations. The film teeters on the edge of being too fanciful to work. Yet Tukel’s skill lies in turning such seeming arbitrariness to the benefit of a distinctive sensibility. It’s one that, as always, some viewers will consider as annoying or pointless, while others find it delightful.
The rather basic production package extends to the use of stock classical themes as the primary musical backing, another economy move that ends up serving the caustically breezy comic tenor just fine.