This movie has the best of intentions. As a message-delivery device, it could hardly be timelier, dealing as it does with misogyny and sexism in the film industry and beyond in the #MeToo era. Deep into America’s third wave of feminism (or at the dawn of its fourth, depending on who you ask), the film’s larger messages are praiseworthy and, sadly, still deeply relevant: In the public sphere, women’s personal freedoms and access to professional opportunities continue to be unfairly curtailed; in the private sphere, women’s dignity and senses of self-worth are still continually eroded; and in the sexual sphere, women’s pleasure in heterosexual relationships is still too often disregarded as too many men still prioritize their own satisfaction over that of their partners. Heather Graham, in her debut as writer and director of a feature film, is right to try to deliver these messages by whatever means she can.
Perhaps unfortunately for Graham, however, movies are (or should be) much more than message-delivery devices. Graham aims for comedy as her spoonful-of-sugar to help the medicine go down, but her movie’s uneven tone, dated gags, and strained performances cause the whole thing to feel so bogged down that the movie ultimately lands well short of success as either commentary or comedy.
Half Magic might have made more sense if it had been set in the ‘90s. Graham’s character and her two friends (Stephanie Beatriz and Angela Kinsey) learn about sex-positive women’s empowerment, embrace their inner goddesses, engage in wicca-lite rituals to make their wishes come true, and reject their cartoonishly evil exes in favor of cartoonishly angelic hunks who are nice to them and give them amazing orgasms. (If The Craft was a screwball comedy with heroines in their thirties and forties, it would have been this movie.) The jokes might have been funny prior to the current millennium, but here in 2018, they just sag. It long ago stopped being fresh or even moderately amusing to refer to breasts as “bodacious tatas,” and the trope of white yuppies attempting rap and failing hasn’t been charming or cute since . . . wait, was it ever? In any case, the women are put-upon, and we’re supposed to sympathize with them and hope they’ll become brave and catch a few lucky breaks. I might have liked them more, however, if the actresses hadn’t been coached into sounding like squeaky-voiced dingbats. After a while, I couldn’t tell if the characters were becoming feminists or satirizing them; they were made to seem that unpleasant. Even Molly Shannon, often very funny, simply warms over her old character from SNL, Sally (“I’M FIFTY!”) O’Malley, in her new role as the leader of an “Embrace the Divine Feminine” seminar who yells the word “pussy” a lot.
I wanted Graham to succeed with this film. It has become a Hollywood truism that, if a woman director’s first feature doesn’t flourish commercially, she won’t be offered a second chance, whereas innumerable male directors have made weak debuts but enjoyed a measure of grace from studios execs and producers who allowed them to get their careers off the ground. It may just be that Graham shouldn’t both write and direct for the same project; as a director, she does get some genuinely funny performances out of some of her supporting actors. Luke Arnold, for example, embodies equal parts Russell Brand and Jemaine Clement in his performance as a loopy, free-spirited sex god. And Jesse Heiman (better known as the “World’s Greatest Extra”) finally graduates from roles like “Chubby Young Adult” and “Locker Room Student with Inhaler” to a fun turn as Demarcus, a video game designer with an unwholesome passion for his job. These are some bright spots, and Graham ably guides the actors to find their rhythm. But the writing for Half Magic is so stilted and even embarrassing at times that even gifted comic actors like Stephanie Beatriz (easily the funniest part of ensemble comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Rosa Diaz) can’t hoist the film to its feet. (Beatriz, it’s worth noting, may have received some bad direction in creating her whiny, simpering voice for her character, but had she been given something fun to say, the performance might have turned out well enough.)
Graham would do well to study some women-directed feminist comedies where the touch is light and the jokes actually land, like Lake Bell’s delightful In a World (2013) or Alice Wu’s under-appreciated Saving Face (2004). There are glimmers of promise in Half Magic, but if Graham is to succeed in her new line of work—and I hope that she does— she will need to get out of her own way first.