It’s a bit presumptuous of me to suggest that the History cable network scheduled its two-part “Houdini” mini-series over Labor Day weekend on the theory that most folks will be away from their television. But, if by some chance, that turned out actually to be the network’s strategy, kudos to them.
Houdini is played by Adrien Brody, but not even the Academy Award winner can drum up a performance magical enough to make his character seem real.
He is burdened by Nicholas Meyer’s script, which paints a one-dimensional portrait of a man with daddy issues and who seems to talk exclusively in aphorisms. What could even the greatest thespian do with dialogue like this:
“I love my father. But he was a nobody. I’m not going to be like him.”
“Fear is how I know I’m alive. Not like other people. I don’t escape life. I escape death.”
“The only way to beat death is to put your life on the line. Why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?”
Houdini was born Erik Weisz, later Americanized to Ehrich Weiss. He had a distant relationship with his father but was extremely close to his supportive mom.
The film swiftly touches on all the expected plot points: his marriage to wife Bess (Kristen Connolly), his rise from carnival attraction to international star, his increasingly difficult escapes, his time spent debunking psychics and mediums.
But despite the fact that the special is four hours long, it never delves deeply, instead moving from one Houdini trick to another, without giving us a real idea of who he was.
In an effort to add a little zing to the story, Meyer relies on “The Secret Life of Houdini,” a book which suggests that the illusionist served as a spy for Britain and was murdered by a spiritualist in revenge for his attacks on mediums. Neither of these points seems to be included in any other biography, though that doesn’t mean the book’s authors are wrong.
Meyer — or director Uli Edel — does something else I found disturbing. In the second part of the series, Houdini’s mother, Cecilia Weiss (Eszter Onodi) plants lingering (and not very motherly) kisses on her son’s lips. It made me quite uncomfortable.
In summary, then, enjoy Labor Day weekend. Don’t worry about TV.