Why Did Houdini Flick Fail? Inside Magic Knows

Death Defying Acts is out on DVD says Lisa Miller in The Imperial Valley News.

Inside Magic had high hopes for the 2008 drama staring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Inside Magic opined during the film’s pre-production that it was a sure fire hit.  How could it go wrong with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Houdini?

Sure, the story was completely made up, but how was that different from anything you might read on this website?  Who were we to fling objects that look like rocks?

The drama based on a fictitious tale about Harry Houdini had the components necessary for a hit but apparently did not find the audience Houdini and Ms. Zeta-Jones deserved.

The film told the story of Houdini searching for a true psychic.  The great magician is taken in by Ms. Zeta-Jones’ character Mary McGarvie and her young daughter Benji.

Already the story sounds good, right?  Who couldn’t love a film where Catherine Zeta-Jones has a daughter who is a dog?  Like you, we saw all of the Benji movies in the 1970’s and, probably not like you, we saw them again later during detox (the second stay).

The Benji movies were great and great fun.

They were kind of like The Daring Dobermans‘ films but without the attacking and jerky cinema verite editing and pan shots.

We read somewhere Benji was actually a female dog.  That is not new.  Lassie was a boy dog.  So, we have no problem believing a girl spirit could inhabit the body of what everyone knows is a boy dog.

And it makes perfect sense that the fake psychic’s daughter’s spirit would inhabit the body of a lovable rascal like Benji.

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan

Perhaps if we had been directing the film, it would have worked.

In a move of directorial insanity, Ms. Zeta-Jones’ daughter’s spirit does not inhabit a dog.  Rather, the girl is the Benji character.

You read right.  They wanted the audience to believe that Benji – the dog, a boy dog – was actually the daughter but in the body of a girl who looks very much like a girl.

While it was difficult to tell if Benji the dog was male or female, it is not difficult to tell that the actress playing Benji in this movie is, in fact, female.

She gives off all of the signs female-ness.  The young lady’s name is Saoirse Ronan, a now famous Irish actress – though born in New York.  She was even nominated for Best Supporting Actress — but not for this movie.

Casting a real-live girl as Benji is a tough sell, we think.

It was like that play Equus; sort of.

Remember that play where you had to pretend that the guy with the wire hat that looked like a horse’s head was, in fact, a horse.  It was a pretty weird and “deep” play.  We hear it has been revived in London with the star of the Harry Potter films.

The Newest but Real Benji
The Newest but Real Benji

In Equus, audiences were not required to imagine the actor was both a horse and female. No, even the art house folks at the time realized the actor playing the horse had to be the same gender as the horse.

But, times have changed and the avante garde is no longer avante-ing like it used to.

Audiences today want realism.  They don’t want to have to suspend belief too much.  We are no longer into “symbolic” or “platonic” forms of characters.

If something is supposed to be a dog, it should be a dog.  If something is supposed to be a little girl who worships Houdini, it should be a little girl but that little girl shouldn’t have a dog’s name.

Death Defying Acts likely failed because it asked too much of today’s modern audiences.

The lay critics, however, overlooked our concern about confusion of gender/species.  Their complaint was more about the acting and directing in a broad sense.

The women, impoverished Scottish con artists, are meant to be endearing as they pull off their scams. When Houdini swoops into Edinburgh offering a $10,000 prize to any psychic capable of reciting his mother’s dying words, Mary seizes her opportunity with gusto.

Zeta-Jones and Pearce make a striking couple, but the elegant actress hasn’t a desperate bone in her body and Pearce’s performance unwinds as Houdini’s torment turns laughable.

The film was made for around $20,000.00 but grossed only $3,500 in the U.S.  Apparently it never made the theaters in the U.K. and had a very limited outing prior to the release of this DVD.

The ad-hoc reviews on the IMDB Message Boards were even less refined in their critique:

I was at the boardroom when this movie was being planned and this is pretty much how the conversation went:

Man 1: “Hey I good a good idea! Let’s make a movie about Houdini that really doesn’t have anything to do with Houdini. Let´s completely make up a silly story that doesn’t have anything to do with his real life. Also if we take a real few things from his actual life we should distort them so they too will be very far from what actually happened.”

Man 2: “Sounds good to me. I would like to propose a story that I call “Houdini the mama’s boy”. It tells the story of a wimp who falls in love with the people he actually despised. Also in this story Houdini is a gullible fool who will believe just about anything.”

Man 3: “Sounds like we have a movie to make.”

If you were waiting to see it after it’s limited two week run in U.S. theaters, this is your chance.

The DVD includes commentary with director Gillian Armstrong and producer Marian MacGowan.

Plus, you get the “Making of” mini-movie; as well as the theatrical trailer they apparently did not show enough to get audience for the film; and even the English language track and Spanish subtitles.

Our film critic noted, “Of all the movies ever made about Houdini, this is certainly one of them.”

So true.

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