[box cover]

The Magic Christian

Based on the short book by hipster novelist Terry Southern, 1969's The Magic Christian may engender a trippy period appeal you might otherwise reserve for a lava lamp. Unfortunately, both as a movie and as a comic 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 smugly to skewer the moneyed classes through the English Theatre of the Absurd that fostered Monty Python among others. Pre-Python John Cleese and Graham Chapman were, in fact, among the too many cooks behind this screenplay, and some of its better moments bear that distinctive Python stamp.

One of its problems is that there are no characters here, only actors used as furniture moved about from one underdeveloped scene to the next. Be that as it may, Sellers plays millionaire prankster Sir Guy Grand, who in the movie's first moment of unexplained whimsy adopts a scruffy youth sleeping in Hyde Park (Ringo Starr, mere months from being an ex-Beatle and seemingly anesthetized). Together they stage elaborate scenarios 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 dwarves, and a rampaging gorilla suit. To make sure we Get The Message, at the end Sir Guy tosses wads of pound notes into a vast vat of shit and piss, into which the dapper swells wade and submerge to line their pockets.

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 it is. Plus, after more than 30 years, any satire here that may once have been biting now just gums. Its plotless, rambling shape makes this the English cousin of Casino Royale, with whom it shares director Joseph McGrath, or The Party, though without the former's romper-room giddiness or the latter's sweetness.

But 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 "mistress 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 John Cleese, Richard Attenborough, Spike Milligan, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Graham Chapman. 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. Photography was by Geoffrey Unsworth, who is 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 that's too pretentious by half and ultimately doesn't amount to much. One may ask if Sellers, Southern, and other well-heeled individuals behind The Magic Christian made a "counterculture" movie as a quick, easy means to sucker in the hipster youth market it's so clearly aimed at. But that would be cynical, wouldn't it?

*          *          *

Artisan's DVD release will disappoint fans hoping for a cleaned-up, audiophilic edition. Though often shown on TV in widescreen, the film is presented here full-frame with all the open-matte territory in view. The transfer is fine (good color and detail), though it's from a spotty, scratchy source print. The thin, flat, sometimes tinny 2.0 audio disavows the box's "Stereo Surround" come-on. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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