Wednesday, September 3, 2014

REVIEW: History gets a C- in Houdini

The Houdini miniseries is a strange confection of fact and fantasy that is stylish and breezy enough to be entertaining to general audiences, but will disappoint and confound anyone with even a basic understanding of the real life of Harry Houdini.

Houdini star Adrien Brody.
Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows that I am forgiving to a fault about inaccuracies in Houdini biopics. I love the 1953 Tony Curtis Houdini movie, despite the fact that Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher correctly pointed out that, "If any phase of Houdini's life is shown on the screen you can be sure it didn't happen the way it's pictured." My favorite biopic is The Great Houdinis (1976), even though it invents a family triangle that made David Lustig, who knew Houdini personally, "feel nauseated."

I don't have a problem with these movies. Because at the end of the day, they still adhere to the basic superstructure of Houdini's life and career. Their dramatizations do not really change anything that is vital to our understanding of the Houdini story. A basic summary of these biopics will still give you the story of Houdini. That's because they had screenwriters who did their research, and even though they had to work within the Hollywood machine, and create conflict and drama, they showed respect for the notion of a biopic and respect for Houdini.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer is a hero of mine. He wrote what I consider to be the best Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He wrote and directed the best Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And don't even get me started on the awesomeness of Time After Time and, yes, I even kinda LOVE Volunteers. So when I heard he was writing the Houdini biopic, I was very excited. Sure, it would have fictionalizations, but that's the nature of the medium, and like the screenwriters who came before, Meyer would find a balance. I spent a better part of a year pre-explaining this.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer.
Well, it kills me to say that if any screenwriter can and should be sued for malpractice, it is Nicholas Meyer for his work on Houdini (at least in the first night). Meyer's script is not "artistic license," it's negligence, and at times Houdini is so bad it's actionable (I will explain later). When Houdini's life doesn't fit his fictions or lazy assumptions, he changes the life. How, when, and where Houdini finds fame and success -- a key component in the life story of any entertainer -- is completely thrown out the window for a version that is straight out of Meyer's imagination. Here, Houdini rockets to worldwide fame via a single "Johnson County" jail break in 1896. That's it. No Martin Beck. No trip to Europe. No Alhambra debut. No Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini springs fully formed (complete with Water Torture Cell) and is already the "most famous man in America" by 1900. This is so far from the truth it's shocking.

Now, I don't think I'm being nit-picky here. I'm not counting rivets on the Milk Can. I'm talking about something that is as fundamental to the story of Houdini as Pearl Harbor is to a story of World War II. Some things you cannot change, and it doesn't matter if you're the guy who made Star Trek II. Doing so shows a brazen disrespect for the subject and for the audience, and you will lose the world's most forgiving and supportive Houdini fan -- me.

Meyer's other offenses are more fundamental and just plain sloppy. He misspells Houdini's real name as Erich (it's Ehrich). He portrays a deep rift between Ehrich and his father, but never explains it. He presents the Water Torture Cell as Houdini's first major escape ... in 1900! Not just horrendously wrong, but it effectively erases the entire progression of Houdini's art and career. He places Houdini's home in Brooklyn instead of Harlem, seemingly for no reason other than personal taste? Houdini was a cinema pioneer. Meyer makes him a cinema holdout. Houdini was a famous teetotaler. Meyer shows him drunk. Houdini created an act and an identity for his brother as Hardeen in 1900. Meyer shows Hardeen performing successfully in the 1890s while Houdini is still struggling to make his own name. What kills me is Meyer just seems to take the approach that the truth doesn't matter. The truth is what works for him at the moment. The entire thing feels lazy, arrogant, and even amateur.

But it soon becomes clear why Meyer so badly mangles the facts of Houdini's early life, and to be fair, he may have been forced into this by producer Gerald W. Abrams, who bears as much responsibility for what we see here as Meyer. Because at minute 40, Washington D.C. comes a'calling and sends Houdini off to Europe as a secret agent! Now, this 2006 theory that Houdini did "spy" work for the U.S. and UK is HIGHLY dubious (and more so with each passing year of total silence on the subject from the authors who first proposed it) and should never have been included in something that purports to be a biopic. But Hollywood cannot resist a spy movie, and it dominates Night One. Suddenly, Houdini's career is sidelined and the miniseries turns into "Harry Houdini of the Secret Service," with Brody taking orders from "M" (get it?), running across embassy rooftops, and using his magic act only as a "cover." What was that about feeling nauseated?

Once the floodgates have been opened, more fictionalizations come pouring forth, supplanting real events in Houdini's life that would have provided much better drama. Instead of standing trial in Germany and proving himself by performing escapes in a courtroom (as really happened), Meyer substitutes a scene of Houdini doing a bullet catch for the Kaiser (never happened). Instead of his dramatic escape from the Siberian Transport Prison Van in Russia, we get a magic performance for the Royal family and a disapproving Rasputin (who, by the way, would not arrive on the scene for another two years). We also get to see Harry having a kinky affair with British painter Lady Butler which, of course, is pure kinky fiction. This all threw me so badly that I found Night One pretty hard to watch, even though it was nice to see things like Houdini's aviation career finally included in a Houdini movie (notice I didn't use biopic).

However, as I said, much of Meyer's machinations are so the silly spy elements will fit the narrative. This is why Night Two, which is finally free of the spy element (thank you, World War I!) is MUCH better. In fact, Night Two shows us what could have been, and goes a long way toward redeeming the disaster of Night One. Sure, artistic license and time compression are employed, but there finally seems to be an effort to tell Houdini's story accurately and respectfully. Meyer even resists the temptation to go directly from Mama's death (incorrectly dated as 1914 -- a year Meyer assigns to just about everything) to spiritualism, and therefore is able to give Houdini's movie career its due. This is the first time any biopic has done so and what a joy to see Harry and Bessie sitting in a Hollywood screening room watching The Grim Game with Brody dangling from the plane.

The best scenes in the miniseries are among the last -- Houdini's death in Grace Hospital in Detroit. Here the actors finally get to play dramatic scenes without the incessant voice over and hyperactive editing effects (more on that later). Houdini's bedside conversation with his doctor is right out of real life. The details of Houdini's death, while dramatically time compressed, are largely accurate. Houdini does not die in the Water Torture Cell in HISTORY's Houdini, which is a first. This shows that Meyer did do his research and, yes, might even care. And if you've made it to the very end without throwing a shoe through your TV screen, there is real footage of Houdini's graveside funeral that has never been shown before, including a look at the large "Mother Love" floral arrangement. Wonderful.

Meyer also has his moments of brilliance. After failing to seduce Houdini in his hotel room, Margery, nicely played by Megan Dodds, turns to him and says, "When you die, we will make you say whatever we like." That's a great piece of dialogue and shows just how good a Houdini biopic can and should be. I just wish whatever hand guided this second night was present during the first.

Producer Gerald W. Abrams.
Stylistically, Houdini is a very mixed bag. Producer Gerald W. Abrams said his inspiration was the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes (oh, why could it not have been Boardwalk Empire?). So Houdini strains to ape director's Guy Ritchie's filmmaking style with hyperactive speed ramping and frenetic editing. This works well ... when it's done by Guy Ritchie. It doesn't work here. It feels desperate, dated, and distracting. So does much of John Debney's bombastic score. Also, the entire 4 hour miniseries (3 without commercials) uses Harry's voice over to explain motivation and make transitions. There's some nice dialog in here -- "Most people escape life, I escape death" -- but voice over is a lazy narrative device that generally works to keep the viewer removed from the drama. It all feels like exposition. You keep waiting for the real story to start. Superimposed titles are used throughout to locate the action, yet not a single one is accurate. Why use locators if they are not identifying something real? It's just all part of the masquerade of a biopic.

The beautiful breakout talent of Kristen Connolly (House of Cards) is criminally under-used as Bess. Meyer writes Bess as somewhat dim and present largely to nag Harry into doing things like giving up his escape career (which, of course, never happened). At one point she even blurts out, "I'm just a dumb girl who married a Jew." This is a horrendous thing to put into Bess's mouth and disrespectful to her memory. Nevertheless, Connolly is still able to punch her way through this surprisingly chauvinistic script and deliver a feisty, funny, and very likable Bess. She also delivers heartbreakingly honest moments, such as the aforementioned scene when she talks Houdini out of performing escapes, and her death bed scene with Brody is perfection.

Speaking of the women in Houdini's life, call me crazy, but is there a weird sexual energy between Mama, played by Eszter Ónodi, and her son from their first scene to their last? More than once an object of Harry's sexual interest morphs into his mother. And mama's fixation on her son, both in human and spirit form, comes off as downright creepy. Is this the unstated problem between Houdini and his father? Even the official press material teases: "Houdini and his mother Cecelia had a close and loving relationship, some would say too close." Hmmm... Let's change the subject.

Magic! The magic and escapes in Houdini are beautifully recreated and staged, especially the cannon escape, and Houdini could only wish his own Vanishing Elephant was as effective as it is here. Kudos to technical advisor David Merlini. But its also here that Houdini commits its worst offense, and this is no joke. Houdini freely and cavalierly exposes secrets for no plot reason whatsoever. And these aren't small tricks: Metamorphosis, the Milk Can, the Bullet Catch, Walking Through A Brick Wall (although in this case it does serve the narrative and I would give it a pass). This is the first Houdini biopic to cross this line, and it's a shame to see cinema betray the art that was part of its birth. This is especially distressing as Adrien Brody started out as a magician and still has a deep interest in the art of magic. You'd think the Oscar winner could have had some say in stopping this. I'm hoping that the S.A.M., IBM, and AMA officially condemn this miniseries for this serious transgression.

On the topic of actionable issues, while the movie credits as its source Houdini: A Mind In Chains by Bernard C. Meyer (screenwriter Nicholas Meyer's father), it clearly isn't. There's nothing here about Leo and Sadie Weiss which is key to the Meyer book. Instead, Houdini is clearly adapted from The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Houdini's "spy" activities and Bessie's marijuana use (sigh) are only found in the Kalush/Sloman book. And there are dozens of other examples. Possibly the inclusion of Lionsgate as a producer means some kind of deal was made to use this exclusive material (they acquired the book when they bought Summit Entertainment in 2012), so maybe the only offense here is that on-screen credit was denied Kalush and Sloman so it could be given to the screenwriter's father. But this just adds to an overall feeling that something untoward is going on at the screenwriting level.

Okay, the script has problems, but what about the other aspects of the film (Mrs. Lincoln)? Well, that is also a heartbreaker, because the technical work on Houdini is simply breathtaking! Shot entirely in Budapest, Houdini had a talented crew who clearly gave it their all. Costume and production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein is phenomenal. The almost 300 special effect shots give the movie scale and scope. Uli Edel did a find job directing, and all the supporting cast deliver excellent performances. Even Adrien Brody, a poor physical match for Houdini, delivers a pitch perfect performance and projects a charisma that he surely shares with The Handcuff King. He's a great Houdini.

In fact, if you make your peace with the inaccuracies and watch this as Houdini fiction -- a tale told by an unreliable narrator "with just enough truth to make you believe the lies" -- it can be very enjoyable indeed. And I think it will be just that for general audiences. Because it's possible that I'm now Milbourne Christopher, watching the Tony Curtis movie and finding it impossible to see the value of something that doesn't follow the facts that I've spent a lifetime uncovering and attempting to communicate to the world. And it's also just as possible that there is a 10-year-old version of me out there who will watch this miniseries, as I watched the Curtis movie, and find themselves captivated by the story of Houdini and will want to discover for themselves the truth of this amazing man. And in that way, this modern version of Houdini might just be magical after all.

Thank you and goodnight.

Read my Fact Checks of NIGHT ONE and NIGHT TWO. Houdini will be released in an extended edition (26 additional minutes) on DVD and Blu-ray on October 7.

UPDATE: How I learned to love the 'Houdini' miniseries (extended DVD review).

31 comments:

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    1. Thanks, David. Not a bomb throwing as yours, but we are on the same side. :)

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  2. Excellent review. The title is priceless. Your words are 200% in accordance with my own feelings excepting liking Brody as Houdini. He just didn't have enough charm and presence for me.

    -Meredith

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    1. Thanks Meredith. I changed that grade in the headline a dozen times as I wrote it.

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  3. I'm now catching up with everyone's reviews and I'm kinda laughing to myself because my review is no where near as tough on the movie producers as all the others. I could have chewed nails after Night 1, lol. You bring up all the problems in wonderful detail. I couldn't spend anymore time on this movie and had to move beyond it. Glad you really spelled it all out. I expected more from the History Channel and from the guy who wrote and directed Star TrekII:The Wrath of Khan.

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    1. Thanks Dean. I look forward to your review. Maybe I'll do a post linking to all the major HH bloggers reviews.

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  4. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniSeptember 3, 2014 at 4:18 PM

    Nice job on the review John

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  5. John, I think Meyer is a decent writer and I love Time After Time and his father's book but he is not all that original. Check out: http://www.leagle.com/decision/1977466434FSupp32_1457

    I met the Yale Professor (Musto) from whom he stole the whole idea behind the seven percent soution.

    Great review to read, thanks!

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  6. If I hadn't been a longtime fan of Adrien Brody, I probably never would have watched this movie at all. I knew almost nothing of Houdini (other than the 'Houdini' character played by Brody in "Oxygen"), and had little interest in those that performed magic. But because of Brody, I gave the movie a shot. And--much like the ten year olds out there--I was caught up in the life of the real Houdini! I've done pretty much non-stop research on him since night one!

    I get that you want a more accurate show, but I think that it worked wonderfully to entice others to take a look at Houdini as a real person.

    That alone should be enough to forgive them for the show's flaws. :)

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  7. Perfect review! You nailed every point, and many I never knew existed.

    For me, the hyper, ramping, chaotic editing and the endless rock band-drumming score made me want to follow Brody into that frozen river.

    Maybe Abrams originally wanted Guy Ritchie, but instead just settled for 'some guy'.

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  8. I was afraid from the beginning that it would be dismal, but was hoping against hope. Despite occasional flashes, it mostly lived down to my expectations.

    Two questions, though. First, about Bess. I've never thought of her as perfect, but was she as vulgar and as, well, as "common" as Meyer wrote her and Connolly played her? (I wasn't as impressed with Connolly as you were, John, but then, she didn't have much to do other than look pretty, be angry, and apparently never age.)

    Second is Harry on the radio. Is there any documentation of him doing broadcasts? I know he was interested in technology (and leave us not forget the "radio" in his stage act), but I don't think I've ever thought of him on the air.

    What I'll take away from this one is endless pointless images of Harry's stomach muscles, the creepy way Cecelia was portrayed, and the reams of missed opportunities.

    The great Houdini biopic is still waiting to be made.

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    1. Oh, Houdini absolutely did radio broadcasts. Check this out:

      http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2010/12/houdini-radio-address.html

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  9. Talk about hitting every bull's-eye. Congratulations, John. A seriously thought-provoking review from someone who's as much an expert on Hollywood as he is Houdini. Tonight I had my friends watch the 1953 film with me. Both of them liked it better than the Brody picture, as I do. I'm no film expert, but it doesn't take a cinematic genius to see that the '53 movie's storytelling is tight throughout every scene. 61 years later, and a CGI-enhanced Houdini film can't touch the Curtis and Leigh pic.

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    1. Thanks Tom. And I agree about the Curtis movie. That was made in a time time when the biopic was true genre that was understood by audiences and filmmakers. Today Hollywood tries to fit eventing into a action movie model. But I hoping for better with television because we're in a real golden age of quality in TV. There was potential for this to be the best ever.

      You know, I was thinking last night how The Great Houdinis put a disclaimer on the front saying what you were about to see was mix of fact and fiction. That was a decent and respectful thing to do and it really should have been done here. But I bet that thought never even crossed the minds of the filmmakers and network.

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  10. As much as I hated the History version, I have to think that some of my negative reaction is generational.

    The Tony Curtis movie, which many of us have fond memories of, also was filled with factual errors and sheer nonsense, such as "the man in the bottle." But the movie suits the tastes of people who grew up in the '50s or '60s. It's colorful and light; it has two attractive leads; great music. It's entertaining.

    The Brody movie probably suits the tastes of younger people. They don't mind the music or the editing or the sex scenes.

    I can see that it was modeled after the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes movies -- but with 1% of the quality. Those Sherlock Holmes movies are absurdly unrelated to Doyle's characters and stories, and in that sense they're just as false as the Brody movie. But we accept them as entertainment.

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    1. Personally, Eric, being one of the younger generation myself, this miniseries doesn't suit my tastes at all. The music, editing, and gratuitous sexuality appalled me, not to mention the liberties taken with his life and the insistence on revealing the secrets behind his tricks. Of course, I'm probably in the minority. I often joke that I was born in the wrong era.

      The big difference between Sherlock Holmes and Houdini is that one is fictional, and therefore it isn't as big of a deal if you decide to take a quirky spin on him, and the other is not, in which case it becomes disrespectful. The screenwriter and director are treating him like a fictional character, not a real person, something I take major umbrage with.

      I'm not a fan of the 1953 film, but at least they remained more reverent to his memory and tried a little harder to capture the time-period.

      -Meredith

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  11. I think the movie was made for entertaining the general public with some today's type of movie making to keep it from being a boring old movie with all the same everythings as the last movie and shows on PBS and other or even something a bit different from Youtube. The other possibilities are that Houdini finally came back from the dead and whispered his life story to the screenwriter. Could be true.
    -Churchwell

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  12. I have read many books on Houdini, and other than Adrien Brody and his performance, I was VERY unhappy with this fictionalized version! People will now think this was a bio on him, when scenes like the last time Houdini saw his mother were FALSE. Houdini last saw his mother when he and Bess were on board a ship going to Europe. The mother was at the dock, waving to them. She asked her son to send her back some slippers. She died shortly thereafter. Houdini buried her with the shippers he bought. How I wished Penn and Teller, as well as David Copperfield, were on board with this program. They STUDIED Houdini's life. The actress who played Bess was NOTHING like Bess Houdini! Just when does a woman go to bed with full make-up on? Like I said, this show could've been incredible, but to mix facts and fiction up doesn't work with Houdini.

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  13. John, I agree with your review. I was hoping for something better then this. I have to believe that STUDIO NOTES affected some of this but over all it was sub par and not deserving of Houdini's legacy. But I will say this, much like the Paul Michael Glaser movie did for me as a child it will inspire a new generation to seek out more knowledge about Houdini and thus keep his memory alive. And for that alone I'm glad it exist. It's brought Harry back where he belongs -- Center Stage.

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    1. Great point about the notes, Adam. I would love to hear the story of the development of this. It might help us understand why the two nights are so different in their approach to the facts. I feel like they might have given Meyer one of Summit/Lionsgate's old scripts of their never made Houdini spy movie and had him build on that in the first night. It just feels like Night One has a fiction base constructed to accommodate and facilitate the spy story. And that scene with Harry in the safe, etc., is just so horrendously written and conceived it's hard to imagine that came from a writer like Nicholas Meyer.

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  14. You know, even though I gave this miniseries a pretty rough review here, I think some are piling on a bit and bashing it a little too gleefully. Really, had they gotten the facts of his early success even remotely right and cut all that stupid spy junk, I would have stayed onboard and ranked this miniseries pretty high. As I said, I really enjoyed Part II. At moment, I'm not sure where to rank it. Below Houdini (53) and The Great Houdinis to be sure. But it's above Young Harry Houdini and Death Defying Acts. It's battling for the middle with the TNT movie. I'll hold back my final judgment for when I see the extended edition (and maybe even re-review).

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  15. Really loved the first night. I knew some stuff was kind of over the top. I am all prepared to watch as many movies about Houdini as I can. Know any good books?

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  16. my name is Victor and as Ex member of IBM and SAM, they lost me when I saw two traveling show presenting sawing a woman in half in 1898

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  17. I was so incredulous after night one that I couldn't be bothered with night two! "History" Channel ought to be ashamed! Based on your review, John, I'll get to night two...at some point. Excellent review.

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  18. I just had to review this miniseries for a library trade journal; your informed assessment helped tone down my initial enthusiasm - though I fear I still enjoyed it more than you did, in a pure entertainment/Houdini-for-Dummies kind of way (shoutout to the Paul Michael Glaser/Sally Struthers version, we agree on that). I think the opening disclaimer that this was a mixture of "FACT" and "FICTION" left the filmmakers feeling comfortable about taking considerable liberties with the truth. Perhaps The History Channel should make that a standard disclaimer in front of everything they air. Anyway, thanks.

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    1. Thanks Charles. The broadcast version from which I wrote this review didn't have the disclaimer. Had I seen that disclaimer, I might have written a less negative review. I have come to enjoy the extended version on DVD and did a revised review of that version HERE.

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