By Curt Wagner
7:55 PM CDT, April 5, 2012
"Magic City" pours a potent cocktail of celebrities, beautiful (nude) women, mobsters, handsome (semi-nude) men, politicians and FBI agents into at swank Miami Beach hotel in the late 1950s.
Although you've tasted many of the ingredients before (in "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "The Godfather" movies), creator Mitch Glazer mixes in enough new elements to keep things tasty. Throw in the exquisite sets, period cars, gorgeous costumes and generally fine acting, and "Magic City" (9 p.m. April 6, Starz; 3 stars) could become quite intoxicating.
The slick series begins on New Year's Eve 1958 at the luxurious Miramar Playa Hotel, where owner Isaac "Ike" Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) lives with his stunning wife, Vera (Olga Kurylenko), and three children. Ike is in a pickle: With just a few hours before Frank Sinatra is set to perform two shows, the local union is striking outside the hotel and Ike can't get his old union buddy to shut it down.
So Ike reluctantly turns to the devil who helped him build his dream-come-true in the first place--ruthless mob boss Ben "The Butcher" Diamond (Danny Huston). Ben has fled his casinos in Cuba as Fidel Castro's revolution threatens to take over the country. He's back in Miami ready to sink his claws into the city.
"I want more," Ben warns Ike, talking specifically about control of the hotel. "That's what I've always wanted; I've always wanted more."
Huston plays Ben with a searing intensity that burns the character's image into your brain and makes you fearful for anyone in Ben's path. When Ike's womanizing oldest son, Stevie (Steven Strait), meets Ben's new young wife, Lily (Jessica Marais), and she purrs, "I'm the wrong woman," you agree while picturing Ben fatally interrupting any tryst they might have.
Ben's all menace and gluttony, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Huston chew scenery, I hope he eventually finds more subtle shadings in his character, as Morgan has with Ike. Morgan strikes a nice balance between sweetness, worry and ruthlessness; Ike is basically a good guy forced to get his hands dirty to save his dream.
"Magic City" really sparkles when the charismatic Morgan is onscreen. He and Strait do subtle character work in a well-written scene where Stevie, having been thrown for a loop by Lily, asks Ike whether it was love at first sight when Ike met his now-deceased first wife, Stevie's mom.
"No," Ike answers, drawing a disappointed look from Stevie. "What you're talking about, that only happened with Vera."
The scene is touching and a surprising, and it shows that the respect Ike has for his son dictates he be so brutally honest. It sets up another tender, telling moment between the two later in the premiere. When Ike messes Stevie's hair to say both thanks and congratulations, Stevie leans his head into Ike's hand. It's a simple, moving gesture that speaks volumes about both characters.
Both scenes, too, show that some of the cliches at play in "Magic City"--Strait's seemingly rote bad boy, for example--are transformed into something more in the blink of an eye.
"Magic City" may have its flaws, but magical moments like these will have me sipping its heady blend every Friday.
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