Genies. What’s not to love? They grant you three wishes and walaa! You’re a millionaire or married to the love of your life or driving a dream car. But, as every movie or TV show has shown us, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch.
There have been many movies about people meeting genies or Djinns (Kazaam, The Brass Bottle, Aladdin, The Wishmaster, The Thief of Bagdad), and not all of them end with a happy ending. Adapted from the 1994 short story, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt, this clever and imaginative tale takes us to Turkey where famed narratologist, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), is going to be giving a co-lecture on the deconstruction of stories. While there, peculiar things start to happen to her, but she shrugs it off to her over-active imagination. While on a side-trip to Istanbul, she picks up a fancy glass bottle and, while back in her hotel room, she opens it and BOOM! Out pops a genie (Idris Elba)! But is he real or a figment of her fertile imagination?
Anyway, this Djinn grants the usual three-wish deal, but this smart and scholarly woman is well aware of the pitfalls and tragedies of wish-making. Rather, she decides to get into the Djinn’s personal life, how & why he was incarcerated for 3000 years, and what his wishes are. It’s then the Djinn, taken back by her unusual request, settles in and proceeds to weave a tapestry of three tales. In a flashback, he explains how he was placed into various bottles and why. . . each story upping the stakes on his life. The final tale is the most heart-breaking, with the Djinn falling in love with his lovely and brilliant master (Burcu Gölgedar).
Moved by his tales of sorrow, Alithea makes her wish, but it’s one you don’t expect. The story then shifts from her hotel room to her flat in London. But will her wish fulfilled prove to be her folly? And what about those two nosy, bigoted neighbors next door? Co-written & directed by George Miller (the Mad Max franchise, Babe: Pig in the City) and first-time writer, Augusta Gore, this film has heart and a quirky set-up, but loses its steam and tone in the third act.
I’ll give it credit, the whole mythos of the ‘genie in a bottle’ is wonderfully explored and broken down by Alithea, who gives great examples of why wishes always contain hidden disasters. The hotel scenes show off terrific character studies of Alithea & the Djinn with Swindon & Elba playing off each other quite nicely. However, the real treat are all the gear-shifting backstories the Djinn tells. They are surreal, violent, graphic, beautifully shot and directed with almost no dialogue, and is by far the best parts of this movie. Had the movie been just that, it would have been far better.
What sinks this movie are two things: the false endings and a lazy third act. Still, the first & second acts are by no means something to overlook as they contain some intriguing visuals, great storytelling, and outstanding performances. Swindon, all firey red hair and spectacles as Alithea, is a knowledge vacuum, and it’s delightful to see her engage in a verbal tête-à-tête with Elba who, even though he has pointy ears like Spock, has an endearing charm you can’t deny and a voice like melted chocolate. Just ignore that third act, okay?
**Now showing only in theaters
The Brass Bottle (1964)
Based on the 1900 novel by Thomas Guthrie, this little comedy has the dubious distinction of giving one of its stars, Barbara Eden, the lead in her own 60/70’s series (I Dream Of Jeannie) because of this movie, even though she doesn’t play a Genie!
Originally filmed in 1914 then remade in 1923, this 1964 comedy starts right out the gate with the delivery of a 3ft-tall Egyptian brass bottle to Harold Ventimore (Tony Randall), a former wild ‘n’ crazy playboy, now a boring Pasadena architect. He plans on gifting this impressive artifact to sourpuss Professor Kenton (Edward Andrews), the father of his beautiful fiancé, Sylvia (Eden). But since he already has a replica of it, Harold takes it home, opens it up, and BOOM! Out pops Fakrash Al-Amash (Burl Ives), a portly Green Djinn Genie who’ll do anything Harold asks. . . including stuff he doesn’t ask for!
Naturally, this turns Harold’s world upside-down as Fakrash, aiming to please his new master after 3000 years, lavishes every gratitude on him, like gold bars & jewels, a stunning Arabian palace upstairs in his home, and a fabulous opportunity to get the real estate client of a lifetime, Samuel Wickerbath (Parley Baer). But with all these new riches and a powerful client, people like Harold’s live-in Beatnik artist friends, Seymour and Hazel Jenks (Richard Erdman & Kathie Browne), and Sylvia are getting suspicious. To get his mind off of Sylvia, Fakrash summons the gorgeous Tezra (Kamala Devi), a Blue Djinn Genie to flirt with Harold, but it doesn’t work.
Pretty soon, Harold just goes with the flow and accepts his fate, taking on Fakrash as a business partner, but that’s when more problems begin as Fakrash has zero ideas of how real estate works. The eye-rolling ending, which is as bad as the old “it was all just a dream” scenario, is played out, and really undermines the entire film. This is a shame, as prolific screenwriter Oscar Brodney (he wrote about 60 films from 1942 to 1987) had so much to work from. The problem is, this movie had terrible tonal shifts all over the place, having Tony Randall’s character go from happy to sad to excited to mentally exhausted all in one scene! He should have been a scatterbrained, ‘what-am-I-going-to-do?’ Harold (like Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace).
Then there was the plot that bounced around everywhere, including a great introduction of Tezra, a female Djinn that could have explored great possibilities, but she’s barely on screen. Another oddity: the movie opens with, what appears to be, the second act! Information about Harold’s crazy, wild, and debauchery-filled lifestyle is mentioned more than once, but we never see any of it, nor does Randall even convey any hint of it in his character. Really bad casting! Burl Ives is wonderful, and Eden is very good with legendary character actor Edward Andrews always giving his best!