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Lots of magic — but little illumination — in 'Houdini'

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How did Houdini free himself time after time? Finding out is the best part of History's 'Houdini'
Was Houdini a spy for the U.S. and Britain before World War I? Maybe. Maybe not

Oscar winner Adrien Brody is the big get for History's biopic "Houdini," an attempt to reveal the man behind the great-escape legend. It is also, one assumes, a bid to re-ignite the network's original drama flame sparked by 2012's similarly star-studded "Hatfields & McCoys."

Unfortunately, "Houdini," unlike its subject, does not dream big enough. The series airs over two nights beginning Monday.

Much of its four hours is spent showcasing the escapes, with the "man behind" bits filled in almost entirely by monotonous voice-over and "historical" moments that do indeed defy imagination. (The meeting of Houdini and Rasputin is particularly, although clearly unintentionally, hilarious.)

To a certain extent, screenwriter Nicholas Meyer ("The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," "The Human Stain") is constrained by time and subject matter — although he died at 52, Houdini had a long and strange career. If you're going to drag big historical themes into it (World War I looms, the popular press rises, the culture of celebrity forms), four hours is probably not enough.

Meyer also worked from the 1976 book "Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait," written by his own father, a psychological double-feint I don't even want to get into.

Whatever the film's intent, the psychology pales in comparison to its physical manifestation. In other words, his tricks were amazing, and the most interesting aspect of "Houdini" is that it explains how he did many of them.

Not all the escapades featured are historically documented, at least as they are presented here. But then this is a drama, and History has been smudging the lines of scholarship for a while now, especially since it got into the docudrama business.

Houdini was always as much myth as man. No one exploited the public's desire to be thrilled by deception more than the man born Erik Weisz.

We meet the illusionist as he jumps, chained, into an ice-covered river only to be transported back, through artful flashback and ruminative voice-over through his Early Years, in which young Erik was instantly drawn to the mystery of and public enthusiasm for magic.

Magic led him to vaudeville and what would become his signature ability: to free himself from any locked device under increasingly adverse conditions. Along the way, he acquires a wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly), to increasingly fret about his safety, and an assistant, Jim (Evan Jones), to create the many ingenious devices that allowed Houdini to be Houdini.

Though never allowed to explore Houdini's real talent — to remain calm under extreme pressure and to never drop the tiny gadgets that would free him — Brody lends a haunted/obsessive air to the proceedings. This is particularly so toward the end of the series, when the death of Houdini's mother leads him to wage a public (and slightly ironic) campaign against fake mediums, including the wife of Arthur Conan Doyle.

But the psychology explored in "Houdini" is so obvious and garden variety that it squanders Brody's talents. Houdini was famously attached to his mother, and at least as depicted here, permanently traumatized by a disapproving father, seen only briefly as a rabbi so Old Country he refuses to learn English. This led him, as we are reminded ad nauseam during the above-mentioned voice-over, to both court and defy death.

When it's not cluttering the joint with clunky exposition and asides ("Some things can hit you in the gut worse than any punch," Houdini says in one of the 5 million scenes foreshadowing his death), "Houdini" is a well-shot, decently acted and beautifully costumed chronicle of all the daring exploits. Including, apparently, assignments from the British and American governments to spy on German and Russian leaders in the years leading to WWI (a theory, advanced by William Kalush and Larry Sloman in their 2006 book "The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero").

Whether all of it is true remains open to question, and a more deftly made film would have leveraged that mining the fertile land between truth and illusion. Did Houdini actually jump into a frozen river while in chains, as the film's opener posits? Maybe, maybe not. Did he serve as a spy for the British and American governments in the years leading to WWI? Maybe, maybe not. Does it even matter? Maybe, maybe not.

Instead, the force that propels this "Houdini" is not so much "why" but "how" and "what." As in how did he do that trick, and what did he do to top it? Which is interesting but not illuminating.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Houdini'

Where: History

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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