History channel’s “Houdini” erects a cage from which even the renowned magician can’t escape: Nicholas Meyer’s misbegotten, heavy-handed, narrated-ad-nauseam script (which in terms of prominent early 20th-century figures, owes more of a debt to Freud) and Uli Edel’s equally obtrusive direction. Then again, the project is based on a book titled “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” which explains the impulse to put its subject on the couch, with Adrien Brody as the ultimately overwhelmed lead. Spread over two nights, there are intriguing elements for those fascinated by Houdini, but the movie feels less like a gut punch than a head blow.
Brody represents a casting coup of sorts for the producers and History, but almost from the opening moments, there’s a grating aspect to the film, as if this were the first bio about an overachiever with mommy issues. Perhaps that’s because Houdini, in monotonous voiceover, insists on analyzing what motivated him: “Unlike other people, I don’t escape life; I escape death.” (A veteran screenwriter, Meyer’s adaptation is based on a book published by his father, Bernard C. Meyer, in the 1970s.)
Nor is there much supporting help for Brody, with Kristen Connolly coming off as a nag playing Houdini’s perpetually concerned wife, Evan Jones as the architect behind his many tricks, and practically no one else registering.
Leaping about in time, the movie chronicles Harry Houdini’s upbringing as Ehrich Weiss, a Jewish immigrant from Budapest (where, incidentally, the miniseries was shot), parlaying his early love of magic into a stage act that eventually made him one of the most recognizable figures of his era. Along the way, the project takes detours to chronicle some of the other historical figures Houdini encountered, which included using that access to spy on behalf of the Americans and British before World War I.
The mini’s second half, meanwhile (after the most anticlimactic opening-night cliffhanger imaginable), focuses squarely on Houdini’s determination to contact his beloved and departed mother (Eszter Onodi), leading to the war on mediums he conducted, branding them psychics and frauds. That prompts an unexpected run-in with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose wife claimed she could patch Houdini in to the great beyond.
Admittedly, there are some interesting moments detailing how Houdini achieved his spectacular illusions and escapes. Still, the dialogue is too often brutally on the nose, including lines like the magician saying his father “was nobody. I’m not gonna be like him,” or his wife’s exclamation, “You may not be afraid of death, but you’re afraid of life!”
Ditto for the direction, which not only telegraphs the importance of Houdini letting people punch him — showing off his powerful stomach muscles — but zooms into his body, repeatedly, to illustrate the effects. The device becomes so numbing at times it feels as if the filmmakers are trying to get inside Houdini’s head by way of the alimentary canal.
“Houdini” exhibits more fidelity to history than the 1953 movie starring Tony Curtis, but that was, in its own way, wonderfully cornball and cheesy. By contrast, this is dour, grim and labors to get through a second act that clocks in a half-hour shorter than part one.
History has enjoyed considerable success with its scripted longform efforts, and the subject matter here might be enough to replicate that. Still, long before the credits roll, it’s hard not to wish “Houdini” would simply disappear.