'Magical Universe': Film review

Courtesy of IFC Films
This raggedly assembled doc fails to do justice to its intriguing subject

Jeremy Workman's documentary profiles the late outsider artist Al Carbee, who created elaborately staged dioramas featuring Barbie dolls

Subject and filmmaker are well matched in Jeremy Workman's documentary about outsider artist Al Carbee. Carbee, who died in 2005, was an eccentric who spent decades creating elaborately staged and photographed dioramas and other artworks featuring Barbie dolls, of which he owned thousands. Workman, the son of acclaimed documentary filmmaker Chuck, spent more than a decade chronicling the artist, befriending him in the process. The result is Magical Universe, which feels nearly as obsessive as the creative process it documents.

The story begins in the late 1990s when Workman, on vacation with his girlfriend Astrid in Maine, accepted the chance recommendation of a friend and sought out the artist. He made an impromptu short film concerning the encounter which made the rounds of film festivals. When he later sent Carbee a copy the artist wrote back, beginning a decade-long correspondence. Carbee sent his new fans an endless stream of homemade videos and letters, the latter of which featured bizarre ramblings and references to an imaginary planet called Epicuma.

The film, which we're informed was shot on a dozen different cameras, has an inevitable patchwork feel, although the elderly Carbee is a genial camera presence, proudly declaring that "I'm a creative person." His eagerness to finally share his work with the world is understandable; his wife of 54 years, who died in 1997, had urged him to keep it a secret, no doubt concerned that their fellow small town residents might consider it somewhat creepy.

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And creepy it undeniably is, with Workman inevitably unable to avoid the temptation to spotlight his subject's strangeness. Watching some early footage, Astrid, who Carbee at one point gushingly describes as "a human Barbie doll," admonishes her boyfriend, "You are making a strong statement that he is weird."    

More problematically, the filmmaker hasn't shaped the material in particularly coherent or compelling fashion, despite the fact that he's had nine years since Carbee's death to work on it. He touches the usual bases, including an admiring analysis of the art by the curator of NYC's New Museum, and when the then 89-year-old Carbee finally gets his first gallery exhibition at a local museum it strikes a heartwarming note. But possibly because of the personal relationship that had developed, he never delves too deeply into Carbee's psyche, with the result that Magical Universe is a frustratingly elusive effort that fails to live up to its grandiose title.

Production: Wheelhouse Creative
Director/editor: Jeremy Workman
Producers: Jeremy Workman, Robert J. Lyons
Executive producers: Gennifer Gardiner, Geoff Vernon
Directors of photography: Jeremy Workman, Michael Lisnet, James G. Colston, John Atherton Monroe, Robert Lyons, Al Carbee
Composer: Karen Altman

No rating, 77 min.