TV Movie Review | 'Houdini' (2014)

Part 1 | “Some things can hit you in the gut worse than any punch”; a huskily voiced Adrien Brody narrates repeatedly throughout the first half of History Channel’s two part mini-series.

Tuning into this supposed biopic it was a sucker punch to realize it was in actuality a highly fictionalized account of the iconic Harry Houdini’s life. About the only accurate details that exists in the script is that a man named Erik Weisz, who went by the stage named Houdini, and was a revered magician, illusionist and escape artist.


For viewers hoping to see anything beyond the bare bones of those truths, only disappointment awaits. A whole review could be spent on the inaccuracy of the project and it is from its cornucopia of falsehoods (there is even a disturbingly outrageous insinuation of incest) that most of the personal problems with this presentation stems.

To simply address the movie, there were a few light spots amid a lot of darkness. The reveals of the illusions and escapes were well produced. However, the emphasis on exposure was unnecessary.

The pacing was swift and steadily moved viewers through a vast amount of time. The cinematography was sharp and visually lush. The score was complimentary and the costuming was quite remarkable.

One of the main things hampering its flow was the overuse of jump cuts to the foreshadowing abdominal assault. Dropping a few anvils to Houdini’s dark fate is one thing. Repetitiously broadcasting the same image was overkill.

It’s hard to disengage and accept the film on a fictional basis when there is a constant narration attempting to convey that this is the real story from the mouth of the man being portrayed. The essence of Houdini’s legendary showmanship and his innate gift as an entertainer was in no way articulated. Neither was the notion that he was arguably one of America’s first celebrities.

Instead he’s portrayed as an egomaniac bent on fame, a lousy husband and angry show boater. The first installment grows weary and in the end, dull. Rating: 4/10 
Part 2 | In the second half, Houdini and Bess (Kristen Connolly) finally age after remaining superbly preserved during the first part’s 20 year span.

The movie hurtles through Houdini’s war against spiritualism and it is here that it takes yet another turn. It posits that despite wanting to believe, he has burned through the fakes in a righteous outrage over their failure to deliver results.

The real Houdini’s honorable work to demonstrate the fraudulent workings of the clairvoyant movement is subsequently undermined in one fell swoop.

It is in the closing chapter that “Houdini” finally strikes an emotional chord with the dazzling performance of Kristen Connolly. In both parts, the Houdini’s marriage is drawn as a mostly unhappy one, which results in the chemistry being habitually adversarial.

Connolly’s performance as the boozed up and dismissive Bess is strikingly vibrant throughout and in the latter half she tops herself in Bess’ farewell scene with Harry. It’s a moment where the rest of the film’s failings momentarily disappear as Connelly unmasks a character conflicted, hurt and grudgingly lovelorn. Forgetting the retched context of the film’s build up to this moment, it rang with sharp sincerity and emotion.

In contrast, Adrien Brody’s characterization slides from calm to fury without any building distinction or subtlety. His take in the second half does improve. The main flaw with his portrayal is that it runs so contrary to the spirit of how Houdini is historically known.

For instance, his prowess as a gregarious master of the press is completely stripped away and Brody’s performance makes it hard to believe Houdini accomplished all that he did, behaving in the manner depicted. As factually flawed as the 1953 "Houdini" was, Tony Curtis did bring Houdini's suave entertainment persona to life.

Within “Houdini” lies a maddening portrait and a less than ravishing movie. What it was attempting to convey is baffling. It is not an attempt to venerate an entertainment pioneer so is it a study in the consequence of fame? Is it a cautionary lesson in ambition? If so, it’s been done better. In its deception, the goal to paint an unflattering image of Houdini seems flagrant and that’s no illusion. Rating: 5/10

To learn about the real Houdini and get a full "fact or fiction" rundown of the movie, check out WildAboutHoudini.com

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