TV Review: ‘Houdini’

Houdini History Channel TV Review

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.

TV Review: 'Houdini'

(Miniseries; History, Mon.-Tue. Sept. 1-2, 9 p.m.)


Filmed in Budapest by Cypress Point Prods. in association with Lionsgate and A&E Studios.


Executive producers, Gerald W. Abrams, Andras Hamori; producer, Ildiko Kemeny; director, Uli Edel; writer, Nicholas Meyer; based on the book by Bernard C. Meyer; camera, Karl Walter Lindenlaub; production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein; editors, Sabrina Plisco, David Beatty; music, John Debney; casting, Jeremy Zimmermann, Jeanie Bacharach. 3 ½ HOURS


Adrien Brody, Kristen Connolly, Evan Jones, Eszter Onodi

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  1. Stephanie says:

    I felt cheated at the end, expecting them to show his widow trying to make contact w/her husband every year at Halloween and that they had a code between them that only they knew to prove the message was really from him. Course, also felt cheated on how they made his wife into a shrew……

  2. Normandy says:

    It was actually pretty entertaining-Brody is a great actor

  3. John Yingling says:

    This is a TV mini-series, not a documentary. Yes, Nicholas Meyer did in fact play fast and loose with the historical facts, often making for a better dramatic emotional and visual presentation. So if you want the straight stuff, read an authorized biography, but if you want an entertaining biopic, I wholeheartedly recommend this one.

  4. DR V says:

    I had to turn off part II 1/2 hour in as the inaccurracies continued. Indeed if th Vanishing Elephant appeared as presented in this story, then it would be the greatest vanishing act in history of magic. Truth is the trick was not that great, basically involving a large box and a large mirrored panel. Also this movie depicts Houdini’s mother as being in the audience; a little research would have shown that mom was already deceased when Houdini presented this trick. Houdini was in Copenhagen when he recived news of his mother’s death, not England. Houdini did not first meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at a performance. The list of inaccurracies goes on and on. It begs the question did the History channel even have a technical advisor. I will try to view the rest of the movie, but I almost fear what lies the writers will present on Houdini’s later years and his crusade against fake mediums. It is a shame that the History channel has fictionalized an incredibly fascinating non-fictional story. History channel should be embarrassed!

  5. julie guthrie says:

    Review makes me want to ask the author when was the last time he directed/acted/researched? I think the show was very well done and Brody’s acting compelling from first scene.

  6. Mike West says:

    How people view this miniseries: Very young kids: Magic. Fun. Kids and teenagers: Boring… and what’s with being hit in the stomach? Weird. Something is wrong with this movie. Adults: He’s the most famous magician ever and still is, yet, why did this movie fail to capture the real Houdini?

    Magicians: Thank goodness, they finally made another Houdini movie! But they got tons of stuff wrong about Houdini. But I’m glad they finally made another Houdini movie! But they got tons of stuff wrong about Houdini. But I’m glad they finally made another Houdini movie! Repeat.

  7. DR V says:

    You state this miniseries is more faithful to story of Houdini than the Tony Curtis film; both accounts are take a lot of “poetic” license. Houdini on history channel has blatant inaccuracies. For example, Houdini never performed the “catching” bullet trick. Indeed a colleague of his, Billy Robinson, died performing this trick. Harry Kellar, the Dean of American magicians and a “mentor” of Houdini pleaded with Houdini to not attempt the trick. Also the chronology of Houdini on History is inaccurate as to the order of some of Houdini’s featured escapes, such as the Milk Can and the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
    A forgotten made for TV story of Houdini, done I believe in the late 1970s or early 1980s, starred Paul Michael Glaser (of Starsky and Hutch fame) as Houdini and Sally Struthers as Bess Houdini may have been more accurate than any films about Houdini. And honestly, Paul Michael Glaser at that time probably more physically resembled Houdini.

  8. bob Smith says:

    Ok…. when someone is dropped in tank upside down. … the audience doesn’t go upside down too

  9. PALADIN says:

    Well, my initial qualm is that Adrian Brody is one of the most UN-Houdini-like actors that could have been chosen to portray him…..

    Brody: Tall, THIN and little-to-no muscular development.
    HOUDINI: Short, STOCKY and extremely-muscular.

    Now, I realise that the essense of acting is to convey the essential particulars of a personna by impression….(Peter O`Toole as Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind…One od Hollywood`s tallest actors portraying one of history`s shortest heroes)

    But seriously…. Houdini`s physical appearance was very much a part of his story.

    Was it impossible to come up with talent that at least bore a slight physical similarity to the real man?

  10. aquarius1271 says:

    I recommend the british film death defying acts where guy pearce played the famous magician. It appears to have covered a lot of the same ground based on the story of a real life mother-daughter team who faked their way as mediums and got close to houdini. It was a way underrated movie shot with flair and enlivened greatly by pearce’s spot-on performance.

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