Last year’s “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige” located an audience for costume dramas revolving around stage sleight-of-hand and gimmicky suspense narratives, rather than the usual drawing-room or court intrigue. “Death Defying Acts” might benefit from whatever appetite those pics whet, but it lacks their revenge-driven mystery hooks, offering instead romping and romance that feel half-baked. Gillian Armstrong-directed pic starring Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a lady out to snare him is a handsome contraption that’s never very engaging, let alone convincing. Theatrical returns look to be just fair, with improved prospects in ancillary.
Sounding intriguing enough in concept, “Death” misses the mark onscreen in a way adaptations of deceptively cinematic novels often do. Yet it’s an original script — one that, for long in its development history (it was written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward), didn’t involve Houdini at all, which may explain why the mix of a real-life legend and fictive personnel never quite gels. The former feels diminished and the latter contrived, neither lifting off the page into any kind of real dramatic life.
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Zeta-Jones plays Mary McGarvie, a beauteous con artist in 1926 Edinburgh who uses cheating tactics and tween daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) to fake a music-hall psychic act. When news hits that Houdini is coming to town with a psychic challenge — $10,000 goes to whoever can channel his beloved late mother’s last words — Mary sets her sights on the prize. This, despite Houdini’s well-known skill at exposing all manner of phony supernatural quacks and phenomena.
Benji manages to meet Houdini first, sneaking into a dressing room, to his amusement, if not that of grumbling manager Mr. Sugarman (Timothy Spall). When Benji introduces mum, Houdini declares she might be “the one,” for no apparent reason beyond her being way sexier than the alleged local mediums previously interviewed.
Now ensconced in luxury digs adjoining the escape artist’s own, Mary and Benji try to spy their way into finding out Ma Houdini’s final utterances before the public challenge is staged for an audience of skeptical journalists and scientists. But the Yank himself appears more interested in romancing the distinctly husband-free Mrs. McGarvie, irking Sugarman, who figures her for a gold-digger.
By midpoint, the narrative hinges more on the supposed amour fou developing between Houdini and Mary than on real or faked communication with the dead or other ostensibly key plot elements that become more or less irrelevant. Alas, that center doesn’t hold: There’s scant chemistry between the leads, and it isn’t credibly written into their characters, either. Why does suspicious, hard-to-impress Houdini become smitten so fast with this Scottish vamp? Don’t beautiful women throw themselves at the virile, globe-trotting celebrity all the time?
Result is a brisk, well-produced pic that lacks depth; nor does it provide the fun of deliberate, flamboyant one-dimensionality. There’s no real tension, nothing specific to root for.
Pearce gets to show off a fearsomely fit form, Zeta-Jones has fun with her psychic act, and both do their accents well. But star quality alone can’t salvage two disagreeable, bossy characters who hardly seem made for each other. Dressed in boy’s clothes for no apparent purpose (save that it’s de rigeur now for young girl heroines to be tomboys), Ronan (of “Atonement” and the forthcoming “Lovely Bones”) is plucky and precocious to the brink of annoyance. Spall punches clock, and subsidiary roles are mere bit parts.
If pic offers little of substance, its packaging can’t be faulted: Lensing, production design and costuming are all very attractive. Cezary Skubiszewski’s score aims to heighten character by mixing in klezmer-style (for Houdini) and Scottish folk (Mary) motifs.
One of the best Aussie directors of her generation, Armstrong may be incapable of making a graceless film. But coming after “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Charlotte Gray,” “Death Defying Acts” underlines how long it’s been since she’s had a project that fit just right.