Making magic compelling on-screen is a really difficult trick.
Sorry magicians, it’s not that you’re uninteresting—it’s that what you do is just really hard to dramatize. Tricks—sorry, illusions—are effective when they have a proper setup and a willing audience that’s looking to be hoodwinked (not unlike a TV audience). But magic really only works when the audience is experiencing it in, if not real life, at least real time. Otherwise, how can we wonder if the trick will be successful, and when it is, feel compelled to make an effort to puzzle out what happened? In movies or TV, there’s an additional layer of artifice between the viewer and the “magician” that replaces the mystery of magic with the mystery of post-production. Illusionist as a profession, like most careers, generally can’t sustain narrative entertainment by itself—the characters have to be compelling, have to make us care about the magic. And at the very least, there should be at least a dash of uncertainty; something that can be paid off in the same way The Prestige resolves the workings of its seemingly impossible dual Transported Man feats.
Unfortunately, tonight's History Channel two-part miniseries Houdini, written by Nicholas Meyer and starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody as Harry Houdini, fails to deliver on every one of these counts. The miniseries purports to tell Houdini’s story, but what it really portrays is a series of spectacles, each emptier than the next. Its narrative moves through each of Houdini’s new tricks, from escaping from a water tank to jumping off a bridge to spying on Kaiser Wilhelm and debunking mediums, while jumping around in time for no reason in an unintentional parody of TV period pieces. Uninterested in the parts that aren’t cool, the miniseries meanders through some of the drudgery of Houdini’s work, his family, and his marriage to Bess (an underserved and underperforming Kristen Connolly), rendering an American folk hero in blocky CGI.
As played by Brody, Houdini is a singularly driven prick who gets by because history dictates that he has to. The writers put cardboard obstacles in his path and tell us how great he is instead of actually proving it. Brody should be a great casting choice (he used to be a magician), but when his Houdini isn’t not smarmily winking at things that haven’t happened to him yet (like offhandedly asking his future engineer to make an elephant disappear, years before the actual event) or being upset that not enough people love him as much as he wants them too, he’s just drifting from one feat to the next. These do increase in grandeur—Houdini even becomes a spy for the British and Americans amid the buildup to World War I—though it’s at best unclear whether or not the historical Houdini actually committed espionage. If he did, it almost certainly wasn’t as pulpy as an embassy heist. That doesn’t matter. For the purposes of Houdini, the man born Erik Weisz is a superhero whose powers involve the clever use of lock picks.
The series’ many capers, do, to some extent, resemble superpowers. Many of the best scenes find Houdini and his assistant Jim Collins (Evan Jones) displaying new magical feats, particularly a well drawn-out disappearing trick. Uli Edel’s direction is excited, trying to communicate how remarkable it would be to actually see these feats performed, but in practice these sequences gain most of their effectiveness from mildly disorienting the viewer. And, like the rest of Houdini’s act, it’s a cheap parlor trick. For some reason, the miniseries takes great pains to reveal how all of the escapes were accomplished. Some of these are legitimately clever and fun to watch like minor heist films, like Houdini making a church bell ring at a distance. But when everything from keeping lock picks in his callouses or Bess slipping him a key in a kiss is played as a triumph of human ingenuity, they come across as hollow wins. They pull the wool over the eyes of cartoonishly simple marks while cynically letting the viewer feel superior in a way that does less to actually reward intelligence than The Newsroom.
This sense of pandering is exemplified by the miniseries’ greatest sin, its atrocious voiceover narration. Removing all editorial distance between Houdini and its version of Houdini, not only is the voiceover horrendously overwritten and condescending (Houdini explains what a straitjacket is), it also asks us to completely accept the magician’s account of his own life without trusting us to think for ourselves. Choice phrases from just the first five minutes include: “An ordinary life shackles us,” “I don’t escape life. I escape death,” and the immortal “The one thing I can’t escape from… is me.” These terrible turns of phrase are the show and Houdini striving to convey a greater meaning. But for this idealized Houdini to work as a superhero though, he has to also overcome some real obstacles instead of just kind of being a dick for most of the miniseries and spewing clichés. Brody’s Houdini isn’t a superhero, or if he is, it’s only in his own mind. In reality, he’s Don Draper with a slightly more tangible magic act and worse pitches.
There’s something vaguely admirable about Houdini’s shapelessness—not even lives as distinctive as Houdini’s really adhere to things like “plot arcs.” But for such a shaggy, low-key approach to make sense, a work has to focus on smaller moments, on actually representing the rhythms of life as well as its contents. And Houdini, like its inspiration, is all about the big moment. An early life painted in the broadest possible strokes (Houdini’s mother is a supportive saint, his father a withholding alien nothing rabbi), a love at first sight that doesn’t go anywhere after that first sight, and even Houdini’s frustration with the death of vaudeville could all work if the spectacles were blended together with any sense of artfulness. They function as if to argue that there are only a few moments worth remembering even in such a great life. There are a handful of sweeter moments, mostly between Harry and Bess, but Houdini uses them as connective tissue between tricks. Harry conquers everything right up until he gets caught in the one, inescapable trap (spoiler alert: it’s death).
Houdini’s many flaws are especially disappointing because the life it depicts really is interesting enough to sustain a four-hour miniseries. A souped-up, superspy Houdini is just the least interesting way of tackling Houdini’s real life, which Houdini is at best casually interested in. That biography has far more interesting details—for example, that Houdini rarely slept more than four hours in a night, believing it to be unnecessary, or the full extent of his relationship with his brother Dash (Tom Benedict Knight, who is barely given time to make an impression). Some of these details could have been drawn from Houdini: A Mind In Chains, the book the miniseries is based on (by Meyer’s own father). The stronger second part is buoyed by Houdini’s crusade against spiritualism in the wake of his mother’s death, a story powerful enough that it’s difficult to screw up. But Houdini still manages to overly explain an enigma, leaving little to the imagination while hiding the nuance that would make for a compelling character study.
Early in the miniseries, one of Houdini’s mentors tells him that “Magicians are liars,” but Meyer and Brody buy into the hype. They try to make Houdini’s magic itself powerful on-screen, and chain themselves in the process.
Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.