Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Magic Christian (1969) — If you want it, here it is, come and get it

This third film in my alone-on-the-couch-with-the-flu Peter Sellers retrospective — after Blake Edwards' The Party and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas — was based on the short book by hipster novelist Terry Southern. According to Southern, a copy of his 1959 comic novel found its way to Peter Sellers via their mutual friend Jonathan Miller.
"Peter liked it to the improbable degree that he went straight to the publisher and bought a hundred copies to give to his friends. One such friend, as luck would have it, was Stanley Kubrick."
Thus Southern pinged Kubrick's radar, and that led to Kubrick hiring Southern to co-write the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove once Kubrick decided to make his nuclear Armageddon movie a comedy.

In the movie-making Circle of Life, that's not a bad little outcome for a writer's first solo novel.

Sellers, meanwhile, imagined a film version of The Magic Christian as a pet project, with himself taking the lead role. In 1968 Southern wrote draft after draft of the screenplay, aided (or hindered) by Sellers, director Joseph McGrath, and a pair of TV comedy writers named Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

The ultimate result, 1969's The Magic Christian, is at best a baggy, vapid interpretation of the source novel. Ringo Starr's character was invented for the film and for Starr specifically. While seeing Starr cohabit a film with Sellers, Racquel Welch, Yul Brynner, Roman Polanski, etc. is of keen interest to us lifelong Beatles fanatics, The Magic Christian is diverting more as anthropology than as entertainment. Indeed, it may engender a trippy period appeal you might otherwise reserve for a lava lamp. Unfortunately, both as a movie and as a satire of society's corruptibility and greed, it's likewise formless and gloopy.

This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.

It aims, with unearned smugness, to skewer the moneyed classes through the English Theatre of the Absurd that fostered Monty Python among others. Because pre-Python Cleese and Chapman were among the too many cooks behind this screenplay, some of its better moments bear that distinctive Python stamp.

Sellers plays millionaire prankster Sir Guy Grand, who in the movie's first moment of unexplained whimsy adopts as his son a scruffy youth sleeping in Hyde Park (Starr, mere months from becoming an ex-Beatle and seemingly anesthetized). Together they work their way up the social ladder staging elaborate scenarios — at Sotheby's, in a fine restaurant, at an Oxford-Cambridge boating race, bringing an anti-aircraft gun to a pheasant hunt, and so on — to freak out the toffs, expose the shallow bigotry and avarice of the Establishment, and generally prove that "everyone has their price."

The final 20 minutes boil over aboard the luxury cruise ship "Magic Christian," where the cream of elite society is curdled by a mishmash of psychedelic goings-on that include a vampire, willy-nilly dwarfs, and a rampaging gorilla suit.

Just to be clear here: It's not as though I'm constitutionally opposed to the movie's "message." I acknowledge that human beings can willingly become self-degrading Pavlovian animals when fat wads of cash are wafted under our noses. And if you know me personally you already know that "black humor" and I have a long and happy relationship.

It's just that I'm repulsed at the cellular level by any vehicle — a movie, a political manifesto, a raised-fist poetry slam declamation, a bathroom graffiti pronouncement, the typical Tea Party utterance — that mistakes pompous, unnuanced, mean-spirited and blinkered treatment of its thesis for thought-provoking insight. Especially when I'm supposed to be laughing along with the humor of its delivery mechanism.

In The Magic Christian, this self-satisfied faux-profundity reaches face-palm levels in its final moments, when, to make sure we Get The Message, Sir Guy tosses wads of bank notes into a swimming pool vat brimming with offal, shit, and piss, into which the dapper swells mingle with the hoi polloi to wade in and submerge to line their pockets. 

On the other hand...
Because its sketch-comedy indictments of Society's Empty Values don't get much less sophomoric than that, The Magic Christian is never as clever or enlightened as it thinks we think it is. Never mind that, after more than 40 years, any satire here that might once possibly have been biting now just gums.

One of the movie's problems is that there are no characters here, only actors used as furniture moved about from one underdeveloped vignette to the next. Its rudderless, rambling course — leading to its over-the-top, throw-anything-at-the screen climax — makes this an English cousin of 1967's overstuffed Casino Royale, with whom it shares director Joseph McGrath; although Casino at least had the good nature to be occasionally stupid-silly-fun instead of just callow and bitchy.

Oh, Christopher....
Not such a fantastic voyage.
As The Magic Christian meanders drunkenly from scene to scene, out come the "name that celebrity" cameos that contribute to its minor cult-kitsch popularity. There's Laurence Harvey as a strip-tease Hamlet, Raquel Welch in a brass brassiere as the "Priestess of the Whip" among a galley of topless slave girls, barfly Roman Polanski chatted up by singing transvestite Yul Brynner, and Christopher Lee in full Dracula regalia as the Ship's Vampire. Continue this drinking game by spotting Cleese and Chapman, Richard Attenborough, Spike Milligan, Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets), and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

Mind-scrub of the week: Yul Brynner in drag hits up Roman Polanski at the bar.

The music — namely Badfinger's "Come and Get It" (penned by Paul McCartney) and Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" — adds to the nostalgia fest.

Geoffrey Unsworth supervised the photography, though it's safe to say that he's better remembered for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, and Superman.

The Magic Christian has fleeting moments of fun, is a should-see for those of us who dig on Sellers and vintage Britcom, and heaven knows it's a sampler tray of its time. Too bad it's all such a dismal mess, a joyless exercise that sets out to deliver a Statement that's puerile and obvious and ultimately doesn't amount to much. One may ask if Sellers, Southern, and other well-heeled individuals behind The Magic Christian made it as a quick, easy means to sucker in the "rebel" youth market it's so clearly aimed at. But that would be cynical, wouldn't it?

Music: Ute Lemper, "All That Jazz"
Near at hand: Wild Child by T.C. Boyle