MAGIC RESEMBLES A bad magician's act -- the skilled hands at work simply lack the ability to generate suspense or even to entertain. Part of the blame for this less-than-thrilling thriller lies with the ponderous pace of Richard Attenborough's direction, the same touch that made his A Bridge Too Far an hour too long. Nor is there much life in William Goldman's script, which uncomfortably straddles the genres of mystery and psycho-drama. The familiar theme of the mad ventriloquist and his not-so-dumb dummy can still invoke shudders, but the filmakers' failure to find a fresh approach makes the whole thing tedious.
A shy, sweet magician named Corky (Anthony Hopkins) bombs before audiences until he adds ventriloquism to his act. His mannequin Fats, whom his agent (Burgess Meredith) calls "the first X-rated dummy on the block," is everything Corky is not -- bossy, crude, with a mouth that should be washed out with Pine-Sol. The crowds love him, and Corky seems headed for the top and a T.V. contract -- until, inexplicably, he balks at taking a medical exam required by the network. Panicked by his agent's reassurances that he's only scared of success, Corky flees with Fats to the Catskills, where he grew up, partly to reminisce and partly to look up Peggy Ann (Ann-Margret), the girl he worshipped from afar in high school. He still loves her; her husband is on a "quick business trip" due to personal problems, and before you can say "abracadabra" the bed sheets start heaving. The only problem is that Fats, who has grown quite talkative, feels a little jealous.
As the relationship with Peggy deepens, Corky confesses that he's not so much afraid of success, but of failure. Soon, however, he has something else to be scared of -- his agent, having tracked him down, catches him and Fats arguing violently over Peggy, and resolves to get Corky to a doctor. Fats doesn't care for this plan at all. Following his suggestion, Corky bops the agent over the head -- with Fats -- and dumps the body in the lake. From then on, the blood never stops flowing; some characters even die twice.
Despite a few minor plot twists, the movie is pretty predictable, down to the camera angles. The script teems with tired devices. When Corky and Peggy gaze into each other's eyes, kiss, then exchange a long look, a bedroom scene is obviously going to follow -- and indeed, the camera cuts to a pair of naked bodies (or naked backs, anyway) rolling around in soft focus. The structure of Goldman's script is equally transparent; he shows the agent telling the story of Corky's life to a T.V. exec, a clumsy means of providing the audience with background material. In addition to these cliches, the movie sabotages many potentially chilling moments. While Corky drags the dead agent to the lake, the camera cuts so frequently to close-ups of Meredith's face that the murdered man must not really be dead. Sure enough, he revives just when you most expect it.
THE mishandling of the relationship between Corky and Fats limits the development of any real tension. It's obvious much too early that Corky is a split personality -- the film's first scene establishes the split when, after meekly trying to win over an inattentive audience, Corky suddenly goes berserk and showers them with abuse. His refusal to undergo the medical exam practically signals that "this man is insane."
Attenborough and Goldman miss a good bet by failing to suggest that Fats is really alive somehow. We never doubt that it is Corky expressing his subconscious desires through the dummy when Fats speaks. Stripped of its suspense in this way, Magic becomes a superficial portrait of a schizophrenic.
Luckily, Anthony Hopkins is a fascinating actor to watch, even when saddled with such bad material. Although the script denies him the chance to develop Corky's madness gradually, Hopkins manages to vary the histrionics and constantly radiates an appealing boyishness, even after Corky has just slit someone's jugular. Hopkins' performance nearly salvages the movie, even though he is strongly hampered by the efforts of a bad dialect coach, who must think that Catskills residents talk like third-rate Brando imitators. Actually, Hopkins' accent is the most unpredictable aspect of Magic.
As Corky's agent (called the Postman because he always delivers), Burgess Meredith adds a few Yiddish mannerisms to his trainer role in Rocky. Despite the film's effort to stifle Ann-Margret under bulky sweaters, her performance as Peggy Ann shines with just the right mixture of warmth and wistfulness. Hopkins and she play well together, both in and out of bed.
Love scenes aside, Corky's exchanges with Fats provide the only riveting moments in the movie. The early dialogues inject some much needed, if admittedly ghoulish, humor into the film; the later ones are truly terrifying, as Corky literally spins out of control. The dummy looks amazingly like Hopkins, with exaggerated features that caricature the actor's perfectly. This mocking resemblance not only allows for several nice shots contrasting the two faces, but emphasizes the entire concept of Fats and Corky's alter-ego. Fats' face, like his personality, becomes a grotesque parody of Corky.
In fact, the treatment of Fats displays considerable creativity. The camera photographs him like a real person, so that he seems to change expression and even react to individual lines. His presence enlivens the generally charmless Magic, though not even he can save the unhappy and unsatisfying climax. Somebody -- or several somebodies -- blundered badly with this film. The most intelligent thing in it is the dummy.