History’s ‘Houdini’: What the Critics Are Saying

History Channel's magical miniseries Houdini begins tonight, starring Adrien Brody as the death-defying escape artist in a TV event that traces the arc of Houdini's life from desperate poverty to worldwide fame.

The Lionsgate/A&E Studios four-hour event also stars Kristen Connolly (House of Cards) as Bess, Harry Houdini's stage assistant and wife. Oscar nominee Uli Edel directed the project, adapted by Nicholas Meyer from the 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait (written by his father, Bernard C. Meyer).

Read what top critics are saying about Houdini:

The Hollywood Reporter's TV critic Allison Keene, in her review, calls it "a curious carousel of the magician's life, guided by a frizzy-haired, exuberant and bulked-up Brody. ... [It takes] an unorthodox approach that weaves in surreal and psychological elements, zooming camerawork, frenetic editing, a modern soundtrack and some well-placed animation to illustrate how Houdini's tricks worked." It also embracing the fictional via Brody's voiceover, which "ties together what is otherwise a fast-paced, somewhat scattered storytelling showcase of Houdini's evolving tricks and trade," which "Brody acts out with infectious zest, fully embracing the part of showman."

Of the two nights, "Houdini becomes more linear in part two as it chugs along toward Houdini's final works — and early demise — in a way that feels thematically and visually removed from part one." Altogether, "Houdini takes a big bite, and its journey is often fun and fantastical, but its goofy sensibilities would have benefited from a sturdier structure, and what it wants its audience to take away from its subject’s life story is unclear. That said, the miniseries nails the most important thing: spectacle. Edel's refreshingly dynamic direction and Brody’s buoyant performance allow Houdini's tricks to retain their wonder, even for the jaded modern viewer."

The New York Times' Neil Genzlinger writes that Brody is "a treat to watch. The script, though, is less than he deserved. … [Brody] is capable of all sorts of subtlety and nuance, but Edel and the script don’t respect that, or the audience. The screenplay presents a Houdini who has a strong emotional attachment to his mother and an obsession with escaping the ordinary, but instead of having Brody show us these things, it has him tell them to us, repeatedly." Of these voiceovers, "Mr. Brody does his best with such pearls, but they thud anyway." Still, highlighting Connolly, "the script’s flaws aside, the miniseries is watchable for the performances, ... and for the historical juxtapositions."

Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara notes the irony of a project of such questionable accuracy — both regarding his internal motivations and his stage tricks — airing on the History channel, but accuracy was never the goal here. She reassures diehard Houdini fans that "the psychology explored in Houdini is garden-variety. ... Instead, Houdini spends most of its time chronicling all the daring escapes, including those that may not have actually happened, at least not in the way they are depicted here. ... Houdini was always as much myth as man — no one exploited the public's desire to be thrilled by deception more than Harry Houdini (born, after all, Erik Weisz) — with all manner of biographies and exhibits examining his magic tricks, feats of escape and, later, obsession with the spirit world. In the end, the force that propels Houdini is not so much "why" but "how" and "what." As in, how did he do that trick, and what is he going to do next?"

Roger Ebert's Brian Tallerico says it is "so dense with awful dialogue—the kind in which every character says what they’re thinking and feeling in remarkably self-aware terms whenever they’re given the opportunity—that it buries the elements that actually work here, including a playful performance from Brody and the occasional sense of spectacle." It is "trying to add layers of self-realization to a story that didn’t really need it," and "asks questions but never answers them. Literally." While moments capture "Brody in his element and he finds the core of the showman," he and Connolly "have zero chemistry, although it’s not really the fault of the charming House of Cards star as much as the screenwriters who gave her no character with which to work."

San Francisco Chronicle's David Wiegand warns that "Houdini is insistent that he does not perform actual magic — it's all just trickery. Nonetheless, that doesn't detract from our understanding of how skillfully Houdini was able to hold his audience spellbound." It also "repeatedly suggests psychological forces prompted Houdini to keep pushing himself toward more and more dangerous tricks, without really offering much of a reason why." While Brody and Connolly are solid, the filmmakers "can't help giving in to somewhat ham-fisted telegraphing throughout the film: every time Houdini contracts his abs and dares someone to punch him as hard as possible in the gut, we cut to a shot of Houdini's stomach muscles contracting in slow motion."

Houdini airs Sept. 1 and 2 at 9 p.m. on History.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee

Ashley Lee