'Houdini' is pure biopic cheese... and occasionally a campy delight

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Image Credit: Egon Endreyi

There are at least a dozen great movies to be made out of the life of Harry Houdini, the magician/escapist/pre-cinematic showman/enemy of spiritualism. Unfortunately, History’s new Houdini tries to be all those movies and a few more. The result is a grab-bag of biopic clichés, awkwardly strung together by star Adrien Brody’s narration. Brody sounds like he’s auditioning for any of the parts in Sin City 3, and he overcooks every half-baked line into pure cheesecake: “The one thing I can’t seem to escape from… is me.” Or: “Some things can hit you in the gut worse than any punch.” Or, I kid you not, about three minutes later: “The only thing more devastating than a punch to the gut… is an arrow through the heart.”

The first hour of Houdini isn’t unwatchable, but it’s close. As Houdini’s long-suffering wife, Kristen Connolly (Cabin in the Woods‘ Final Girl) puts her wildly expressive face in service of skimpy material, overdelivering on every bemused/gleeful/grumpy reaction shot. (In the movie’s telling, Mrs. Houdini’s life was a series of reaction shots.) Just look at her before-and-after a young Houdini flirts with her using magic tricks:

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Those eyes! That smile! She’s having fun! Nobody else is, at first. But you should stick around for tonight’s second hour. (The miniseries concludes tomorrow.) Because there’s a moment when Houdini suddenly becomes something very different: Much sillier, decidedly less factual, but considerably more fun.

Question: Would you believe that the Secret Service needed Harry Houdini to spy on Kaiser Wilhelm? And that they paired him up with a shadowy MI5 agent? And that Houdini also went to spy on Tsar Nicholas, where he concocted a wild magic trick that involved a silenced sniper rifle? I’m not going to even get into the moment when MI5 asks Houdini to break into the German Embassy, which leads to a scene wherein the great escape artist starts Assassin’s Creeding across the rooftops of London and breaking into safes for the good of the pre-World War I free world. Oh wait, I just did!

Is any of this true? Reply hazy. It sure is fun–in spite or because of the fact that it feels a bit like a backdoor pilot for a Houdini the Spy TV show. The rest of the miniseries can’t really live up to the goofy thrills of the espionage sequence. Houdini was written by Nicholas Meyer, who gets a lifetime pass from me for writer-directing Star Treks II and VI, but director Uli Edel can never find a solid rhythm for the life-spanning story. There’s almost always an empty cliffhanger before the commercial break. There’s a Breaking the Magician’s Code-esque thrill to seeing how Houdini’s tricks worked, but there’s so little attention paid to Houdini’s actual process. Instead, the back half of the miniseries settles for Dewey Cox-worthy biopic tropes. (At one point, someone tells Harry: “You may not be afraid of death, but you are afraid of life.”)

But there’s stuff to enjoy. Brody is fully committed, and the role plays into his hammier instincts. Connolly’s great, and Houdini could make for a raucous night with your friends if you drink whenever Mrs. Houdini drinks. The costumes look nifty. And I say again: Harry Houdini sneaks into the German Embassy on a mission from the British Secret Service. To misquote John Ford: When the legend becomes fact, print the cheese.

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