Death Defying Acts (2007) starring Guy Pierce, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan
The movie Death Defying Acts is a Hollywood fantasy, based very loosely on the life of Harry Houdini. The basic plot of the movie has Harry Houdini crusading against false psychics (which was true), offering a $10,000 reward for any ‘psychic’ who could demonstrate a psychic ability that he could not duplicate via natural means (also true), falling in love with a fake psychic while on tour in Scotland (blatantly false). Having said that, treating it as a work of fiction, does it work as a movie?
In my opinion, no. The acting is fine, the sets strive for realism, but the movie as a whole falls flat.
Editorial review of Death Defying Acts courtesy of Amazon.com
Death Defying Acts would more aptly be titled Houdini’s Whirlwind Romance as it focuses less on the famed magician’s skills and more on what kind of secret lovers he may have had. In this historical drama, ravishing con-artists, Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and daughter, Benji (Saoirse Ronan), play two sharp girls ready to take Houdini (Guy Pearce, The Time Machine) for a ride. Set in 1920s Scotland, the plot centers on a contest Houdini hosts in Edinburgh to find a psychic medium who can channel his deceased mother. Mary, tired of pick-pocketing to stage fake magic shows, desperately wants Houdini’s $10,000 cash prize and auditions successfully for the role of (real) medium.
From there, passions flare up as they negotiate how much of their magic is sheer trickery. Director Gillian Armstrong’s (Little Women) rendition of Houdini’s life depicts him as a regular joe struggling to convince his pragmatic business manager, Sugarman (Timothy Spall), that magic and science are connected. Scenes in which Houdini trains for and then tests his boundaries and skills during famous theater acts, are highly entertaining and well re-created. Scenes in which McGarvie and her daughter read characters for clues to rig their paranormal hoaxes are equally well-done, and Zeta-Jones is gorgeous as a spiritualist. But when Mary and Houdini collide, their definitions of magic turn to mush through Hollywood translation, as something semi-equivocal to faith in love. This unfortunate injection of melodrama in an otherwise smart film cancels out its better parts. Do Houdini fans really want to see him, on screen, grappling with CG angels as he floats, straitjacketed, in his sealed water tank? I doubt it. Still, Death Defying Acts stars Houdini, which automatically makes for some fun. —Trinie Dalton
Movie trailer for Death Defying Acts