Monday, May 14, 2007

Film Review - Magicians

There's not a particularly big list of missed tricks in Shaun of the Dead. Between them, Simon and Edgar came up with a screenplay pretty much jammed to bursting with useful jokes, character beats and nifty bits of storytelling. But as Magicians began, I saw something they didn't land on, something that would have sent the fans wild. And it was something Wallace and Gromit had in their movie too. Indeed, it really isn't original at all but it does really work.

Magicians is effectively a star vehicle (though things don't quite go to plan - more on which later) for David Mitchell and Robert Webb, a long time comedy duo on the stand-up circuit and latterly TV, where they also star in the one-of-a-kind sitcom Peep Show, and for that matter, the UK version of the I'm a Mac, I'm a PC ad campaign. They're the selling point for the film, everything else is relatively meaningless to a British audience - and this is what makes the opening credits work. Simply put, we get to see an array of old snapshots, family pictures of Mitchell and Webb as kids, teens, growing up. Most are genuine, some later ones faked to set up their career in magic. Similarly, Spaced-cadets would have exploded with joy to see the same idea carried out with Shaun and Ed, mini-me versions of Simon and Nick. It panders to the cult of celebrity a little, maybe, but it's great shorthand, and oddly very convincing when establishing a prior history.

(Weirdly, we did get to see some vintage Frost and Pegg snaps in the opening sequence to Perfect Night In on Channel 4 last night. If anything, this left me even more convinced this would have worked).

So, after this montage of Kodak moments tells us the basics (there's two friends, look, it's those guys you like off the telly, and they're playing a magical double act), the first scenes get the story motoring along: David Mitchell's one is married and his wife is also their glamorous assistant; she's cheating on him with the Robert Webb's character and he finds out just before they're due to go on stage; out there, in front of the audience, their guillotine act goes wrong and... ouch.

She's beheaded.

Or is she? I mean, you've probably seen The Prestige and The Illusionist. You know what these films about magicians are like. There's always some sleight of hand...

The next scene picks up the threads some four years later - Mitchell's character now works in a branch of Wilkinson, amusing himself with magic tricks to pass the time; Webb's has an agent and a few possible openings on TV, possibly as a Derren Brown style illusionist, or if he decides to sell out, as a 'psychic'. Pretty soon, the two of them are looking to enter a Magic contest and Mitchell invites Webb to reteam with him...

As I said, the film is designed as a star vehicle for Mitchell and Webb. You can see I'm not even bothering with their character names - and the audience won't either be, I'm pretty sure of that. Where this goes slightly wrong however - or, in truth, very right - is that the two of them are pretty much upstaged, and upstaged, as I'd imagine they'd observe, 'by a girl'.

Also working in the Wilkinson is Jessica Stevenson's character. She's quickly offering herself as a new assistant to Mitchell, and there's obviously some attraction between the two of them. Her attempt to convince him that she has stage presence involves a bold, energetic, incompetent dance routine, seemingly choreographed to Electric Six's Gay Bar by a Tourettes-struck member of Pan's People. By this point she practically had me eating out of the palm of her hand.

Certainly in that scene, but throughout, Stevenson takes the comedy gold, the boys left to squabble over silver and bronze. It all bodes very well for her own vehicle, the BBC film Learners which is coming later in the year. Hers is a very fresh, and seemingly honest performance, perhaps inevitably reminiscent of her turn as Daisy Steiner at times, but a million miles away from The Royle Family's Cheryl, and certainly nothing like her role in Son of Rambow. This is the year that Stevenson comes of age on the silver screen and I think we'll all feel the benefit of her increased profile.

Oh - and note that while now, in fact she is Jessica Hynes, and wishes to always be known that way, she's credited as Stevenson on the Magicians titles.

The script for Magicians was written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writers of Peep Show and, frankly, it shows. The story, however, took a number of other contributors, amongst whom you'll notice the name Andy Nyman. While he sometimes acts - see Severance, for example - Nyman's more directly appropriate experience to this film is as a magician, and as Derren Brown's co-conspirator for several years now. And another Brown cohort is the film's director, Andrew O'Connor. We're dealing with people who really do know magic here, and O'Connor has been performing illusions since he was a child, once upon a time at a similar level to the characters in the film. As such, you probably won't be surprised to see some very plausible tricks, carried off realistically; you might, however, be a little disappointed to see very few reveals. Only one trick is utterly exposed, and that's within the first few seconds - and even then, it's not the big secret you might think it is.

The last scene involves a very big magic trick with high stakes riding on it. This is the time O'Connor really needed to play fair and let the audience see that editing wasn't cheating them out of the genuine illusion - but unfortunately he doesn't. Rest assured, however, that the trick show can be carried off - even though it's quite clear Mitchell and Webb haven't done it themselves for the cameras. They may not even have been told the means by which it can be done. But that's of secondary importance, I suppose, to the scene's real purpose, dramtically and comedically.

Magicians is easily more entertaining than The Prestige and The Illusionist, funnier and warmer and easier to settle into. It might not have anything so interesting as in The Illusionist bubbling under the surface, but neither is it as directly predictable. In fact, looking for the equivalent of the big switcheroo, the big con, that the other two films hang on, I took my eyes off of the small shifts that Magicians pulls off instead. The big trick with Magicians is, I suppose, that there is no big trick, just plenty of smaller ones.

Unless Peep Show sends you scrabbling for the remote and those Mac ads have you pulling your hair out, I don't think you'll find a more enjoyable British comedy at the cinema this side of Son of Rambow.

1 comment:

Mark said...

"Her attempt to convince him that she has stage presence involves a bold, energetic, incompetent dance routine, seemingly choreographed to Electric Six's Gay Bar by a Tourettes-struck member of Pan's People. By this point she practically had me eating out of the plam of her hand."

Bravo, sir.