'Black Magic for White Boys': Film Review

Courtesy of MPI Media Group
Likable but less edgy than many may expect.
7/3/2020

Onur Tukel's ensemble comedy revolves around gentrification, unwanted pregnancy and an honest-to-goodness disappearing act.

Prolific provocateur Onur Tukel, whose The Misogynists was among the first theatrical releases crippled by COVID-19 shutdowns, has a second feature ready just in time for the "we're reopening — oops, never mind" frustrations of July 2020. (Actually, both films appear to have been ready for a couple of years, the unfortunate timing of their releases being merely coincidental.) Where the former film was laser-focused on a certain kind of boorish entitlement that became a lot more visible in 2016, Black Magic for White Boys sprawls out in pleasant if not exactly compelling fashion, raising various real-world social concerns without having a great deal to say about them. (It's much less about race than its glib title might suggest, for instance, though that's certainly on the menu.)

Occasionally funny, the film might've benefitted from developing some of its characters more at the expense of others, or from digging deeper into the implications of its most notable story element: A book of actual spells with which an aging magician can leave the stage tricks behind and really make people disappear.

Ronald Guttman plays that conjurer, a French New Yorker named Larry, but the part's not meaty enough to justify his moniker, Larry The Magnificent. He plays to sparse crowds at a little basement theater on 13th Street. But just as he hires new assistant Leah (animator Leah Shore), Larry decides his only way to rescue the theater is to break out a book of spells that once got him in a lot of trouble. That night, he makes audience members vanish — not in a cloud of smoke or behind a curtain or out of a closed box; they simply are there and then they aren't. (He can make them reappear elsewhere, or he can simply leave them disappeared, as he does to his wife when she says he shouldn't meddle with this stuff.)

One of the dazzled spectators that night is a prototypical landlord named Jamie (Lou Jay Taylor), an enthusiastic proponent of the "buy cheap buildings, raise rents, let the poor people move out tearfully" path to riches. He can easily imagine ways he'd benefit from having a friend like Larry. But for now he has buddy Oscar (Tukel), who inherited some money a while back and plans to coast on capital gains for the rest of his life.

Jamie introduces Oscar to Chase (Charlie LaRose) on a double date. She's not scared off by his shyness, or by the fact that he's portly, considerably older and intends to put a basketball hoop in his living room. So on their first night together, Oscar tests her by dumping several other deal-breakers on her, including the fact that he never wants to have kids. No problem, Chase replies. My uterus is broken.

Four months later, she's pregnant, and refuses Oscar's crude demands that she take an abortion pill. (Oscar's French drug dealer — what is it with this New York-set movie and French people? — has a suitcase full of pills for everything from bad breath to Parkinson's disease.)

In a film with plenty of underdeveloped characters, Chase is the most puzzling. She doesn't appear to have tricked Oscar into fatherhood as a way of getting his money, and if she simply wanted a kid, there's more promising genetic material anywhere you look. Nor does she seem to have any personal connection with the guy.

One reading the movie barely even hints at is that someone like Chase is just what a man in Oscar's shoes gets. The spectrum of white-guy entitlement shines brightly in other parts of the story — from Jamie, who seems nonplussed that anyone would object to his exploitation of Black tenants, to Leah's truly loathsome ragehead boyfriend (Brendan Miller). But Oscar — who at one point eagerly tries to exploit his ambiguous ethnicity — doesn't fit neatly into that template.

At any rate, the magic we've been promised does keep popping up in order to move the plot forward. But it's always fairly jokey and thin, even as Larry's powers cause his ego to swell and they're being used for very dark purposes. Only in its final moments does the movie realize the device's potential as a poignant visual metaphor for the malign, racist magic that has been practiced by real estate developers, no-limits capitalists and their allies in government for generations.

Distributor: MPI Media Group (Available Friday, July 3 on VOD/Digital)
Cast: Ronald Guttman, Onur Tukel, Lou Jay Taylor, Charlie LaRose, Eva Dorrepaal, Leah Shore, Brendan Miller, Brian W. Smith, Colin Buckingham
Director-Screenwriter: Onur Tukel
Producers: Gigi Graff, Onur Tukel
Executive producers: Lou Jay Taylor, Ronald Guttman
Director of photography: Jason Banker
Production designer: Estee Braverman
Editors: Martin James, Onur Tukel

105 minutes