Imagine watching a magic show on a night when the illusionist has had too much to drink. He can’t coax the white rabbit out of his top hat, and nicks his comely assistant while attempting to saw her in half. Writer-director Clare Peploe’s Rough Magic is the same sort of experience, a potentially mesmerizing but ham-fistedly bungled divertissement.

Bridget Fonda stars as Myra, a Los Angeles magician’s assistant in the 1950s. She plans to leave the act to marry Cliff (D.W. Moffett), a rich, fatuous young politician. On the night of her final performance, Cliff accidentally shoots Myra’s magician-mentor (Kenneth Mars). Armed with incriminating photographs of the mishap, she flees to Mexico in her cream-colored Buick convertible. There she meets Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a huckster selling a cure-all elixir that he falsely claims derives from an ancient Mayan formula. Myra is tailed and romanced by Alex (Russell Crowe), a disillusioned newspaper stringer hired by Cliff. He follows Myra to a remote Mayan ruin where Tojola (Euva Anderson), a sorceress, offers her a blue potion that grants her supernatural powers. Upon discovering that Alex, with whom she has fallen in love, is Cliff’s minion, she angrily casts a spell on him and returns to Los Angeles to marry her fiancé. At the wedding ceremony, a series of miraculous transformations teaches all concerned the lesson that escapist movies perpetually promulgate: The ultimate magic is love.

Based on James Hadley Chase’s novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, the postmodern screenplay, on which Peploe collaborated with Robert Mundy and William Brookfield, mixes magic realism with venerable screen genres—screwball comedy, film noir, and travelogue. Blending all these idioms into a romantic fable (in which a phallocentric lecher is turned into a sausage and a dog talks) requires the gossamer directorial touch of Vincente Minnelli or Jacques Demy. But Peploe, who previously assisted Michelangelo Antonioni and her husband Bernardo Bertolucci, and, a decade ago, made her feature debut with another collapsed soufflé, High Season, is a heavy-handed, literal-minded filmmaker. She lacks the formal control to stylize this dangerously fey material, blunting the comedic impact of whimsical scenes and failing to fuse the episodic narrative into a flowing, coherent whole.

Peploe’s efforts are undermined by her leading players, who do not possess sufficient verve, glamour, or sexual chemistry to make us believe in this fairy tale romance. With her noirish hairdo and slinky wardrobe, blank, thin-lipped Fonda looks like a sorority girl masquerading as Lauren Bacall at an Oscar party, and obliviously recites her lines. (In her defense, only an actress with supernal charm—the young Audrey Hepburn perhaps—could bring Myra to life.) Sweaty and ill at ease throughout, Crowe plods through his scenes as though they were embarrassments. The darkly handsome, high-spirited Moffett, who would have made a far better Alex, is saddled with a Ralph Bellamy stooge role, and Broadbent makes what he can of a stock character. But the efforts of these supporting players fail to compensate for the thespic void at the film’s center.

Ambitious, offbeat, and sweet-natured, Rough Magic could have been an enchantingly lyrical fable. But Peploe lacks the prestidigitator’s skill necessary to bring off this tricky enterprise. Unlike Myra and Alex, who levitate the first time they make love, her movie never gets off the ground.

Twice in ‘Til There Was You, an interminable romantic comedy in which everything is said and done at least twice, characters assert, “I’m an architect. We pay attention to how things are made.” thirtysomething alums director Scott Winant and screenwriter Winnie Holzman should have known better than to focus attention on their shoddy craftsmanship. This misbegotten project, which has languished in Paramount’s vaults for more than a year, is a casebook study of how not to make a movie.

Structure: Rather than erecting their project on a solid foundation, Winant and Holzman recycle the maladroit gimmick that sank Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love and Nora Ephron’s dreaded Sleepless in Seattle: Two lonely, unfulfilled, made-for-each-other yuppies stumble through life until destiny allows them to cross paths at the film’s fadeout. Holzman’s script is stuffed with time-killing subplots and irrelevant characters whose sole function is to keep her protagonists separated until their climactic meeting, the point at which any rational storyteller would begin.

Materials: ‘Til There Was You is assembled from inferior goods. Jeanne Tripplehorn, who looks like the spawn of Gene Tierney and Kermit the Frog, plays Gwen, an idealistic Los Angeles ghostwriter who dreams of Mr. Right. A combination of Diane Keaton neurotic tics and nursery school-pantomime mugging, her grating, charmless performance would sink an infinitely better film. Dylan McDermott (clarification: He’s the beefy, hairy actor who played Julia Roberts’ husband in Steel Magnolias; Dermot Mulroney is the trim, smooth one cast opposite Roberts in the forthcoming My Best Friend’s Wedding) is Nick, Gwen’s lumpen dreamboat. An “emotionally unavailable” architect responsible for designing a brutalist hi-tech restaurant called the Awful Truth, Nick is entangled in a troubled relationship with Francesca (Sarah Jessica Parker, striking poses in an unbecoming hairstyle and several pounds of black eye makeup), a temperamental recovering substance abuser who, as a child actress, appeared on a Brady Bunch-clone sitcom. (If Parker doesn’t opt for cosmetic surgery soon—she looks like a cross between Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and the Joker—her nose and chin will meet before the millennium.) Gwen’s assignment to ghostwrite Francesca’s tell-all autobiography, and Nick’s efforts to construct a new building on the site of La Fortuna, the idyllic Spanish revival courtyard apartment where Gwen resides, are links in fate’s complicated scheme to unite the pair.

Execution: With its suffocating overreliance on close-ups and two-shots, Winant’s visual style is primitive, even by boob-tube standards, and Bobby Bukowski’s depressive cinematography, which casts everything in bluish mortuary light, is singularly inappropriate for comedy. The movie’s only cinematic set piece—a subjective depiction of Gwen’s first glimpse of La Fortuna’s courtyard, where a Noah’s ark of contemporary urban humanity (gays, blacks, guitar-strumming hippies, stage Jews, pixilated senior citizens) basks in a confettilike shower of bougainvillea petals—offers conclusive proof that this duo hasn’t a clue about photographing anything more expansive than faces.

The long-awaited meeting of ‘Til There Was You’s protagonists should end the film on a triumphant note, and in an unintended way, it does. Not because Gwen and Nick have at last found the soulmates they seek, but because viewers who have suffered through this fiasco are finally liberated from two hours in movie hell.CP

More from WCP