Desperate Acts of Magic is one of those indie films that doesn’t know how to turn its limited budget and amateurish aesthetics into an invitation to experiment, or at the very least, an authentic experience. The excruciatingly conventional way it tells its narrative is always at odds with the eccentricity of its subject matter: the attempts of a magician, Jason (co-director and screenwriter Joe Tyler Gold), to climb up the magic industry’s ladder. And while there’s an effort to achieve some kind of deadpan humor, which may have reached witty allegorical status in the hands of a Miranda July, it all just gives the alienating feel of inside jokes that you miss in the off chance you’re not part of the professional magic business.
The film boasts little to no editing for its several magic tricks, but plenty of faux-naïve characters and dialogue. The story revolves around Jason quitting his boring computer-programming job in order to finally pursue a career as a magician. The way for him to achieve this involves entrance into a magic-trick contest that has its own strange version of affirmative action. On his way to the magic stardom that he dream of, Jason runs into a seductive pickpocketing female magician, Stacey (Valerie Dillman), and a hysteric, but not hysterical, groupie who stalks her way into her favorite magician’s acts.
After subjecting audiences to painfully traditional shot compositions and light-hearted musical cues accompanying the characters’ actions, the film seems to honestly ask us to read its bathos as pathos. Stacey bawls when she finds out that the only reason she got picked in the magic-trick contest is because she’s a female, and Jason gets very emotional when his mentor says he’s “proud” of him because being proud puts Jason in the position of a student. The film’s production notes boast that the many magic tricks, which admittedly exert no fascination on me, have mostly been achieved without post-production help. This seems like an accomplishment…for a different medium. Desperate Acts of Magic may have worked better as a live act at a children’s birthday party you would have wanted to miss.