Houdini begins with master escape artist Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody) in chains, plunging into a frozen river from St. Louis’s Eads Bridge. It’s a representative flashpoint the miniseries will go back to at the end of its first half and at the start of its second. In between, Uli Edel’s miniseries scrutinizes the enigmatic Houdini’s personal life more than previous projects. Using the framework of a relatively obscure book, Houdini: A Mind in Chains - A Psychoanalytic Portrait, it tries to explain some of what actually motivated the man.
Dr. Bernard C. Meyer’s book (as adapted by his son, Star Trek writer-director Nicholas Meyer) posits that Houdini’s resistance to following in the footsteps of his father, a rabbi from Budapest who never really assimilated into American culture, coupled with the unreserved adoration that his mother showered on him, made for an alternately confident but sometimes helpless man. On stage, audience gasps and intense stares emanated a level of energy that Houdini fed off of. But privately, his wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly), asserts that he can’t even wash his ears without her help.
The best-known feature based on his life, 1953’s Houdini, offered the then-nifty gimmick of husband and wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh playing the illusionist and his spouse. But it stuck to the lore surrounding his association with the mystical, especially during his time late in life spent debunking assorted frauds who claimed they could put Houdini in touch with his deceased mother. Edel’s Houdini, on the other hand, introduces information unknown to all but the most fervent of his fans: Houdini spying on Germany and Russia’s leaders while on tour in the years preceding the First World War; his dysfunctional marriage; and his occasional philandering.
While it’s intriguing that History, the network formerly known as the History Channel, recruited a number of A-listers for Houdini, the application of talent is often wasted. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein lend Houdini a patina of reputability a cut above the cabler’s usual docudramas. In front of the camera, stars Brody, Connolly, and Evan Jones (as Houdini’s chief assistant, Jim Collins) form an interesting triumvirate, with Connolly representing Houdini’s emotional side and Jones standing in for his rationality.
Utilizing the overactive cutting style prevalent in the dramatizations that air on History, Houdini sacrifices nuance and depth in favor of the facts. It’s rare that any shot is held for as long as five seconds, and often not even for three. Expensive sets and CGI allow Budapest to stand in for a number of other countries. And aside from the principal actors, the rest of the cast, including actors in the key parts of Houdini’s mother and brother, are all as forgettable and stilted as those you’d find in many of History’s simplistic historical reenactments.
Houdini lacks emotional depth. When a plot development must occur to move the story along, such as when the up-until-now tolerant Bess begins resenting the way her husband neglects her in order to explore their dysfunctional relationship, her resentment feels swift and sudden rather than building organically. Without any kind of subtext, it falls to a thin, on-the-nose narration by Brody to link scenes together in any kind of manner. The effect is that Houdini comes across as a mere cataloguing of the magician’s exploits rather than an actual inquiry into the man. And even so, it tends to lean toward the legend more than the facts.
The plunge into the river that dominates both parts of Houdini depicts the magician jumping into a hole 15 feet in diameter cut into the ice. It’s a conflation of Houdini’s Eads Bridge jump with a mythical escape that supposedly occurred under a bridge in Detroit where he escaped a box lowered into a hole in a frozen river. Historical accounts argue that, though the temperature of the water was definitely bone-chilling, the far riskier ice that allegedly covered it was absent. It raises the question: If Houdini isn’t concerned with explaining the psychology of the man (as implied by its choice of source material), and it doesn’t care to get its facts right (as its conforming to History’s house style would otherwise imply), then what exactly is its raison d’être?