Recent zombie flick “The Cured” proved there’s undead life in a very well worn genre, and just like you think you’ve seen it all in romantic sex comedies, Heather Graham (looking as fresh-faced and beautiful at 48 as she did when she really broke through as Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights” aged 27) comes along with a movie that’s as feminist and sex positive as it is funny, feeling every bit like a passion project for the first time writer/director.
It’s the story of Honey, a production assistant turneed development writer at the Hollywood company of an extremely mysoginist movie star and producer, Peter (Chris D’Elia, having a raucously good time as the deadpan, fast-talking, lady-killing huckster). We first meet Honey as a young girl, watching a romantic drama with her father who sternly lectures her when things on the screen turn amorous that it’s not what nice girls do. We then see her in church, where the fire and brimstone priest (Johnny Knoxville) rages about how lust will lead you straight to hell, frightening the young girl witless.
The movie then cuts to Honey and Peter in flagrant delicto, a tepid and demeaning affair she gets nothing out of but (as is made clear while he zips up his pants and proceeds to treat her somewhere between a disposable intern and an inconvenience) doesn’t have the self belief in her worth and talent to reject.
She’s going nowhere fast in her love life or career, held back from truly enjoying or seeking sexual fulfilment and too used to putting the men in her life and their needs first after a lifetime of the usual female conditioning. Like Graham herself has done with “Half Magic”, Honey wants to be a filmmaker and spread her message of female empowerment – how women deserve sexual fulfilment, how they deal with sexual harassment at work, lack of consideration in relationships and their tendency to undermine their own self respect and talents.
When she stumbles upon a womens’ empowerment class where a bizarre and slightly scary group of middle aged housewives all dance around and talk about worshipping their vaginas, Honey is bemused but not really sold, but she does meet two other women who’ll join her in a friendship that will enrich them all.
Eva (Angela Kinsey) is a classic Imposter Syndrome sufferer, a foxy and accomplished middle aged fashion designer who feels worthless because her boring husband (Thomas Lennon) has run off with a 19 year old and who desperately wants him back even though he did nothing for her in bed. Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) has a boyfriend she knows very well is seeing other women but who comes to her place, shags her whenever he wants and then has the temerity to ask her to do his laundry.
When the girls start to hang out after the vagina classes and realise how pathetically they’re all treating themselves (never mind the way men treat them), they decide to do something about it, agreeing on pacts to only date nice men who fulfil their needs, respect themselves, etc. They seal their friendships and agreements with spells and talismanic candles courtesy of the esoterica store where Stephanie works.
The plot isn’t the strongest aspect of “Half Magic”, the story rambling all over the place as Honey, Eva and Stephanie deal with the highs and lows of pursuing romantic and sexual happiness, and the motif of it all being about candles and magic is cute enough but doesn’t add anything much. The real magic is in the characters and the sentiment. The performances are unfussy and certainly not Oscar-level, but the three leads are so full of charisma and chemistry that the emotional ups and downs they’re going through are realistic – all while neither they nor the script forgets that it’s a comedy.
Even though Honey, Eva and Stephanie contain characteristics that are so recognisable among the female of the species (and even while it’s so refreshing to see them portrayed on screen so honestly), they’re never less than fully formed people, portrayed with an effortlessly light touch by Graham, Kinsey and Beatriz.
But the most fascinating figure of it all is Graham herself. Throughout her career she’s gravitated towards roles that were about (or heavily influenced by) sexuality. After playing a porn actress in Boogie Nights she was a promiscuous spy in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”, an aspiring actress who slept with everyone in “Bowfinger”, a prostitute in “From Hell”, another porn star in “The Guru”, a stripper in “The Hangover” films and a gay porn director in “About Cherry”.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s nicer to imagine Graham’s been staunchly sex-positive her whole career, hoping to use images and characters defined by sexuality to show us they have more than just one dimension. If that’s the case, “Half Magic” is her most overt expression of it, and it must have felt like a relief to talk about the themes she believes in with such creative control after so long.
It’s an urgent feminist tract, a desperately needed artefact in the post Weinstein era, a quite beautiful portrait of female friendship and as sexy and funny as any comedy about romance and love should be.