Starting this Labor Day, the History Channel will begin airing its miniseries, Houdini, starring Adrien Brody in the title role, but critics are skeptical about how much of an audience this biopic can draw. While the famous escape artist, born in Budapest as Erich Weiss, commanded tremendously large gatherings to see his performances while he was still alive, this showing may leave them wanting less. While the treatment remains quite true to historical fact, as would be expected in an offering by the History Channel, it seems couched in heavy-handed psychoanalysis and speculations about the performer’s motivations that do not lend themselves to a compelling television presentation.
The miniseries is based on a book about Houdini with the subtitle A Psychoanalytic Portrait, which may help to explain why audiences will be skeptical from the opening line, “One way or another, we all want to escape,” right to the end of this critically anticipated history. According to reviewers, the dialogue remains overly self-expository throughout and creates lines that even actors as gifted as Brody have difficulty delivering in a believable way. One critic even suggests that the lines surpass that of the worst melodrama dialogue and compares the film to a soap opera.
Some members of History Channel’s viewership will likely enjoy learning about Houdini’s trickery and technique in perfecting his performances. Much attention is paid to the illusionist’s assistant, Jim Collins, who invented many of the contraptions used in his performances, which will delight those endeavoring to duplicate his achievements. The very thing that makes the dialogue unbearable will also educate would-be escape artists and illusionists of the future who tune in for the biopic. They will learn how vehemently Houdini insisted that he did not perform “magic,” and of his crusade against soothsayers and psychics as frauds. Those who enjoy psychology may also enjoy some of the theories presented about the artist’s motivations for various choices in his life, though they will probably note that those who are truly obsessed with their mothers do not generally expound on their obsession in casual dialogue.
Given the weakness of his material, critics seem to agree that Brody does as much as can be expected to save the production with his performance as the famed escape artist. According to Roger Ebert.com’s Brian Tallerico, Brody’s “naturally physical screen presence” lends itself well to the acrobatic and boisterous style of the performer, and allows him to overcome some of the script’s shortfalls. He is able, especially in scenes where the film focuses on the captivation of Houdini’s audience from the stage, to have fun with the role and show what an exceptional presence he had. Unfortunately, one actor doing as much as he can with a bad script will not satisfy all viewers and many will likely tune in to something else before even the two-hour first part of the series is completed. Those who tune in to the second installment on September 2 will likely be relieved to have only an hour left to wade through.
While critics may enjoy being skeptical about a film’s financial performance, only time will really tell how the Houdini miniseries will fare when it starts on History Channel this weekend. They are definitely doing their best to get every nickel they can out of their investment with multiple repeat broadcasts scheduled to catch as many viewers as possible.
Opinion by David Morris