Like many fans of Harry Houdini, I wanted to view this with an open mind. To my dismay, "Houdini" follows the pattern set by the previous string of disappointing Houdini biopics, the most major sin being that invented situations are favored in place of actual fact. With a screenplay based on a 1976 book that sought to psychoanalyze the great magician rather than tell his story, this film is perhaps the most disrespectful and historically inaccurate attempt yet, and is not only an insult to Houdini himself, but also to anyone who knows anything about his life.
While the screenplay leaves much to be desired, filled with more fiction than fact and inanely on-the-nose dialogue that never even tries to capture the cadence of the time-period, this could have been a fairly good film, if not for the filmmakers' preoccupation with giving every scene some psychological double-meaning. To this end, there is an overabundance of frankly weird and slightly trippy effects: fast, jerky cuts, an intrusive voice-over that dominates the first half of the story, and a melodramatic, oft-repeated gut-punch every time something traumatic happens to Houdini that, through the help of CGI, goes so far as to show the muscles and organs themselves. John Debney's electronic-heavy and unsettling score also adds to this slightly nightmarish atmosphere.
As entertainment, "Houdini" might appeal to some, but overall, it is simply too much of a fantasy to qualify as a true biopic. The most interesting, important, or character-building events of Houdini's life and career are changed, shifted around in time, or thrown out altogether in favor of giving precedence to completely invented scenes and situations. While every screenwriter has the right to invent, the problem you are bound to encounter when you start rewriting history is that eventually people start believing it. No doubt this film will only add to the already long list of Hollywood-created misconceptions about Houdini. Oddly enough, although this is the first film to depict his death accurately (from appendicitis, not drowning in the Water Torture Cell), they pander to this myth by including a scene showing Houdini nearly drowning while practicing and having to be axed out, with the afore-mentioned gut-punches acting as a remarkably unsubtle bit of foreshadowing.
With a script that doesn't try very hard to be true to actual fact, it should come as no surprise that this holds with the characters as well. With almost no time for character development or even insight into their motivations, it is hard for them to emerge as much more than window-dressing. The final scene between Houdini and his wife should be moving, but because no time was spent building their relationship and personalities, it doesn't have the impact that it should.
Adrien Brody might be a good actor in other roles, but as the great illusionist he is something of a mismatch. With his lean face and puppy-dog expressions, it's hard to equate him with the slight, smiling showman that Houdini really was. His nasally Brooklyn accent makes him sound more like a member of the mob than a Hungarian-born kid who spent his formative years in Wisconsin and New York, and his sleepy, brooding demeanor doesn't gel with Houdini's legendary passion, charisma, and almost hyper-active energy. Most of the fault is, again, due to the script, which takes great liberties with Houdini's personality, leaving how Brody's Houdini managed to achieve the success he did as the greatest mystery of all.
Kristen Connolly as Houdini's wife Bess is the closest match physically to the real Bess we've seen on film (again disregarding the height discrepancy), but her performance also leaves much to be desired, once again a consequence of the abysmal script. Most of the problem is that you don't see her enough. When you do, she comes off as a nagging, unsupportive, and slightly dim-witted woman who doesn't seem to love him very much, which leaves what ought to be the major emotional thread of the film hanging.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer's preoccupation with giving Houdini a complex on everything is most flagrantly apparent in the exaggeration of his relationship with his mother, Cecilia Weiss. Suffice to say, you couldn't get much more Freudian with it, and the scenes that result are, in a word, disturbing. This, predictably, creates tension in his relationship with his wife, Bess, who resents her mother-in-law with emotions verging on hatred. If he had cared to do a little more research on 20th century culture and Houdini himself, he might have better understood that while he was deeply devoted to her, in that period, being a "mama's boy" was expected and could exist without Oedipal undertones, and that she and Bess were not mortal enemies.
But the unkindest cut of all is the filmmakers' decision to do a lurid expose in vivid CGI of all of Houdini's escapes. Besides being in poor taste, it also effectively breaks the code of any magician's society, and amounts to something near sacrilege. While most devoted Houdini fans have a rudimentary idea of how he effected them, do we really want to know? These intermittent forays break up the flow of the story and strips the film of any magic or wonder it might have had, the only exception being the Vanishing Elephant which is, thankfully, not explained.
What disappoints the most is that despite all the reverence and admiration still felt for the master mystifier almost 90 years after his death, no one seems to be able to bring themselves to make a decent film about him. If you don't know a thing about Houdini, this film isn't going to help you, as most of it is complete poppycock. If you do know something about him, don't sport with your intelligence by watching it. Just pick up a book, or watch Harvey Keitel's amazing performance as Houdini in "Fairytale" (1997).
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