Sep 11, 2014

[TV] Houdini (2014)

The irony is not lost on me how strange it is that the one thing that the History channel seems to be really bad at is historical accuracy. More and more of its shows have very little to do with history and more with just about anything else including a lot of secondhand stuff and of course aliens. And yet we still sort of expect them to put more of an effort into some of their more serious productions.

The biographical drama Houdini could have been an interesting look at the life of the great magician Harry Houdini. Instead it was really a rather entertaining piece of fiction with very loose connections the actual events as they took place in the past - actual history, in other words. And it's such a shame too since it featured the very talented Adrien Brody as the titular character.

So how does one view the work? Do we just rate it on how entertaining it is as a television production? Or do we consider the significant degree of historical inaccuracy demonstrated? Or is there some middle ground that can be taken that side-steps the more obvious issues?

Synopsis: Houdini is a 2-part, 4-hour television miniseries directed by Uli Edel for the History channel. The screenplay was written by Nicholas Meyer based on Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, written by his father Bernard C. Meyer.

The movie starts out as a flashback of sorts in Harry Houdini's (Adrien Brody) mind as he is in the middle of an escape attempt involving being handcuffed before jumping into the frozen Mississippi river. And as his life flashes before his eyes, we experience his life at a more moderate pace. Thus we see his humble beginnings as a poor boy named Erich (sp) Weiss (Louis Mertens) who becomes enamored by the world of magic and swears to take up the art. Initially he works with his brother Dash (Tom Benedict Knight), but he eventually falls in love with another performer, Bess (Kirsten Connolly), who eventually becomes his assistant on-stage.

He initially focuses on various magic tricks and illusions but eventually works his way into escape tricks and related stunts. And the whole time he attempts greater and bolder stunts in order to keep his audiences continually entertained. And his fame oddly leads him to become a sort of secret agent for the government as he tried to steal foreign secrets during his tour of Europe. And the whole time he continues to push himself harder and harder with no clear end in sight.

Artistic license in terms of creating movies can only take you so far. It's one thing to take liberties with original source material when creating a movie for a book or theater production. It's another to create a biographical drama on a channel that claims to be all about history and yet present things in a manner that is highly inaccurate. As much as Nicholas Meyer has written scripts for some great movies (including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), in this case he seems to have prioritized loyalty to whatever his father had written over historical facts. I haven't read the book at the heart of this movie, so maybe that statement is inaccurate. I just want to have some sort of a logical reason for why things turned out the way they did.

There internet is teeming with blow-by-blow articles debunking of various points of the series - the blog Wild About Harry nicely breaks things down across Part 1 and Part 2 of this mini-series in terms of what they got right and what they got wrong. Part 1 seems especially guilty of taking significant liberties with Houdini's life.

The mini-series clearly wanted to become some sort of a clone of the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies in terms of look and feel. Thus you have the rapid visual cuts and the bouncy music. But it didn't feel like a nice use of the style in order to tell this story - if just felt like a cheap copy more than anything else. And when you have to rely on excessive CGI for just about every magic trick, the movie feels that much cheaper - I'm looking at you as well Now You See Me. Some CGI sequences were generally forgivable like the close-ups of the inner workings of various locks as Houdini tries to free himself. Other times things are just plain stupid like the disappearing elephant.

Adrien Brody still manages to do well as the famous magician - plus it looks like he really worked out in order to capture Houdini's physicality as well. He has that general sense of intensity about him that we've seen in his various movies that seems to work well with the character that had been written for him. Connolly's portrayal of his wife, Bess, was an interesting effort to flesh out what could have been a pretty shallow character. But at the same time it didn't exactly go as far as it could have in terms of overall impact.

The series makes heavy use of the whole Houdini getting punched in the stomach story as a visual metaphor for him taking emotional blows over the course of his life. Ignoring the inaccuracies of some of these sources of drama (such as the supposed disagreement between Houdini and his father), which was interesting at first but got a little excessive and boring over time. The same goes for all the lock picks and gears presented as CGI - nice for the first few times but rather cheesy well before the first part came to an end.

Houdini was entertaining enough on its own, but fails as a depiction of the life of a great man. We have a lot of spectacle and fluff and even a fictional career as a spy, but at the end of the day the series is a little hollow. Thus I can only really rate this as 3.5 escape stunts out of a possible 5.


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