The mention of illusions, escape artistry and even magic (which the mini-series makes clear was not Houdini’s foray) conjures up the name Houdini from the basement of one’s memory, and if one were in a fanciful or dramatic mood then one might say that Houdini has shown death to be only an illusion.
Based on the book "Houdini: A Mind in Chains: a Psychoanalytic Portrait" by Bernard C. Meyer, the mini-series is, in short, an entertaining stroll through Houdini's life. But for anyone seeking a drama that dives beneath the surface of Houdini’s 52 years will be left unsatisfied by writer Nicholas Meyer and director Uli Edel’s portrayal of the ‘Great’ man, that pulls him off the shelf and like a flick of the duster keeps him free of the cobwebs.
As is the tendency with any human drama, Meyer and Edel throw in the ingredients of angst, torment and human frailties for dramatic effect, along with expositional lines that insinuate a drama that is tempted to offer a more compelling psychological portrait. Hesitantly however this trip through Houdini’s life stays the course to offer an entertaining and routine introduction that does plenty of zigzagging between past and present; threading the drama together with his famous moments that are like tedious changeovers on a journey.
Easing the foot off the critical pedal, the unfolding drama between Houdini and his wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) offers a weight to these moments, as does the relationship with his mother that propels the latter stages of the drama forward. Unfortunately the drama possesses a superficial air which leaves one with the frustrated impression that such moments were never satisfactorily mined for their worth - the filmmakers themselves seemingly wanting to play rather than work, entrancing us with illusions and incredible escape acts that holds their miniseries back from becoming anything remarkable.
Yet in hindsight and to Meyer and Edel’s credit Houdini offers an entertaining 160 minutes in spite of the above complaints, helped to no end by Brody’s performance. Seemingly a date with destiny, as he steps into Houdini’s shoes, Brody holds the screen through not only his physical presence but a subtle performance through his eyes that are brimming with emotion, and which is matched by Kristen Connolly. On the surface everything is for show, but these performances invite us to look into the souls of the characters that invariably creates a conflict with a show that is only a glance.