When this film was in production, I received a phone call from one of the production staff asking if I would meet with Guy Pearce to do some "magic consulting" for his role as Houdini in this movie. In the end I didn't, but having seen the film... what the heck was there to consult on?! There's no magic performed in the movie... and almost everything about Houdini is made up!
Guy Pearce as Houdini is unbelievable, unlikeable, uncharismatic and performs no magic. Houdini was short, stocky and heavily accented - Guy Pearce's Houdini wasn't - but then neither has any other onscreen portrayal been so far. It's most likely the script writer's fault but the depiction of Houdini is as fictional and as far from the true Houdini as you could possibly get. It really made me want to grab a 'Best Actor' Oscar and Express Post it off to Tony Curtis for his "creative" portayal of Houdini back in 1953!
Guy Pearce, an Australian with a very theatrical American accent played Houdini, Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Welsh woman with a very theatrical Scottish accent played the fake medium Harry fell in love with.
Okay... already anyone who knows anything about Houdini can hear those warning spirit bells going off... this is a piece of fiction. But the script mixes up two, maybe three, facts in with the fiction and anyone who doesn't know much about Houdini will come out of this movie with a false view of who he was and what he stood for. In fact, according to reports I've read, people at preview screenings feel the movie is pro-spiritualist - and it is.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. First, my review:
Death Defying Acts made me even angrier than Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. I felt progressively more annoyed as the movie went along, I got restless, and had to resist the urge to throw things at the screen. The best line in the entire movie came from one of the three other people in the otherwise empty cinema when Houdini and the medium kiss and Houdini asked "Do you know what first attracted me to you?" and the heckler replied "Boobs!". It was brilliant. Put the rest of the script to shame.
So, the story begins with a medium and her daughter who do a dance hall act which combines exotic dancing with fortune telling - with a little pre-show pickpocketing to get the dirt on the punters. Now I don't quite understand the logic here. These people are desperate for money, they'll even do a dance hall act - and the manager doesn't pay them he scarpers off with the box office we're told - but to set the act up the daughter steals a gold watch from a punter, which they use for gaining info on him, then they return it during the show. How about skip the whole dance act and just steal stuff if you're that hard up for cash? It's ethically a lot better than the fake psychic business.
Remember, these people are really poor. So poor they live in a house in a cemetery. So poor, the film starts with her hocking her wedding ring for cash. But in one scene the medium dresses up as a very rich person to sneak into the hotel, then dumps all the expensive clothes as she switches guise and masquerades as a maid. If you need money, sell the fur coat!
There are so many irritating inconsistencies like this throughout the movie it's as though no-one ever proof-read anything. And that's regardless of the Houdini content!
Houdini has a manager who travels with him (first I've heard of it!). His wife Bess stays at home back in the USA (she was his stage assistant for his entire career). Houdini is searching for a medium who will contact his dead mother and he chooses a psychic (the medium) and sets it up as an "experiment" which he explains will prove the existence of the other side!?
When Houdini first meets the medium his manager sees through her weak attempts at psychic feats, but Houdini says "She's the one!" He falls in love with her because, as we find out later, she looks like his dead mother. Meanwhile Bess is wiring him several times a day and he ignores her. He goes out with the medium and her daughter at night and seems to forget that he has a theatre full of people waiting to see him perform. He puts the medium and her daughter up in an expensive hotel for the days before the "experiment" even though it's in their home town. Houdini tries to seduce the medium, but she rebuffs him, then he tries to kiss her, but he stops himself saying he wants to make it last.
The "experiment" is that the medium has to announce what Harry's mother's dying words were, and those words are locked in a safe. So she tries to get them out. The manager tries to get her to disappear by paying her off with five hundred pounds, but she says "If I fail to guess the words I'll disappear anyway." Later he says he'll tell her the words as long as she agrees to disappear when she wins Houdini's $10,000 prize. (??!!)
They finally have the stupid "experiment" with her in Harry's mother's wedding dress and, at the last minute she says she can't do it, but as she gets up her daughter does the channelling bit and Houdini is impressed, says his mother has contacted him and the duo get the prize money.
That night Harry goes to the cemetery house and has it off with her. He later confesses to his manager that he knew the manager had told the ladies what to say... so basically, he endorsed spiritualism and paid $50,000 for a quick romp with Zeta-Jones. Yeah... that's soooo Houdini...
Then as he leaves the house he tells her "You saved me." From what??!! Celibacy in Scotland? She says "No, you saved me." At least that made sense as he saved her from poverty.
Then off he goes to Montreal where he dies - as predicted by the spooky spiritualist daughter! Gee, I guess there is something to the afterlife afterall..
We see Harry on the steps of a hotel in Montreal, press everywhere, everyone is dressed for Halloween (so it must be Oct 31) and he gets punched twice by a red-headed guy (the daughter said beware of the flame haired angel or something like that) and he dies on the steps of the hotel.
How can they pick and choose with the facts like that? They even said, in a title card, Harry Houdini died from complications of peritonitis. But he was hit several times in his dressing room by J Gordon Whitehead, in Montreal on Oct 22, he performed in Detroit two days later, then was admitted to hospital in Detroit and died there on Oct 31at 1:26pm in Room 401 (get that MTV fans?).
This film does more damage to Houdini's reputation than all of the previous Houdini films combined.
Even worse than that, it's a slow moving, plotless, poorly edited movie.
I give it one finger.