Magician. Escape artist. Con Artist Exposer. Arguably the greatest entertainer ever.
He deserved a better film.
I’m not a huge fan of any film that starts with the ending and then flashes back. Nor am I a huge fan of the use of a ‘narrator’ that explains the story to me. I can tolerate them by themselves but combine these two things and it doesn’t just annoy the heck out of me but it’s an incredibly lazy way to tell a story. In this case, it’s also an incredibly clumsy way to tell the story.
Houdini is now streaming Netflix and comes in two 90-minute parts. Made originally for the History Channel, the source material for the mini-series was a book titled Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait written by Bernard C. Meyer, M.D. And if that just sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen – you’d be right.
The film has multiple problems – technical, historical, and dramatical. It doesn’t just flashback and narrate, it jumps all over the place. We go back to how Houdini got started in magic then back to his childhood with his father being a German-speaking Jew from Budapest moving to the United States. Then ahead to when Houdini was a spy for MI-6, then back to the early years of performing in the circus.
Adrien Brody actually does a decent job as Houdini but his constant narrating along the way slows the film down. Plus the direction the film takes ends up making Houdini look like a slightly disturbed adult who had less than healthy feelings for his mother. It’s a bizarre decision that I imagine was fueled by its source material. The film spends more time psycho-analyzing Houdini than telling his incredible life story. We even get some dream sequences (I supposed they were dream sequences) of his staring at his mom undressing.
It’s all very bizarre and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this mommy-centered thread is woven through out the entire film. In Houdini’s later years, he sets out to make contact with the spirit of his dead mother. Along the way, he would wear disguises to expose fake mediums. This series of events made him an enemy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – yes, that one of Sherlock fame.
For the purists out there, there isn’t even an attempt to make the film true to the period in terms of dialogue or language. Some of the actual “history” of Houdini could be questioned as well – particularly concern the events around his death.
It’s on Netflix so if you are desperate to watch something on Houdini – I imagine there are worse choices but the overall feeling I got walking away from this film was disappointment.