Lovely to look at and packed with some solid doses of charm and wit -- but sorely lacking in historical accuracy and romantic chemistry -- Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts tells the story of a brief but (mildly) interesting relationship between Harry Houdini and a beautiful con woman in the summer of 1914. How much of the film is actually factual I have no idea, but I do know that Harry Houdini looked more like Gene Wilder than Guy Pearce, but hey ... this is full-bore Hollywood fantasy all the way. Only some of the names are unchanged to keep you interested.
So, fine: Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini. I'll bite. And the guy delivers a fine and firmly affable performance; I just never really bought him as THE Harry Houdini. As the single mother with a flair for fake fortune-telling, Catherine Zeta-Jones is just as lovely as ever. Her character isn't given too many shades to work with beside "sneaky" and "doe-eyed," but the gal oozes old-school movie-star vibes whenever she walks across the screen. And young Saoirse Ronan makes for a plucky little sidekick / daughter, just in case you happen to bring your kids to the movie.
The main story deals with a challenge laid down by the "escapologist" himself: $10,000 to anyone who can successfully "predict" what the final words of Houdini's mother were. And since Mary McGregor (Zeta) is precisely the sort of pseudo-psychic who knows just how to fleece a mark, she takes the challenge quite seriously. The fact that this destitute street-psychic looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Houdini looks like Guy Pearce should certainly make the process a little easier for all involved. (Those who enjoy basic-yet-colorful comic relief should enjoy the broadly blustery performance by Timothy Spall as Houdini's short-tempered manager.)
When Armstrong focuses on the Houdini character and runs (randomly) through some of the stories that made him famous, Death Defying Acts is pretty effortlessly diverting. Unfortunately, the longer the film wears on, the less "fun" and the more "dour" it gets. The tentative romance between Pearce and Zeta is never more than mildly frosty, despite the actors' best efforts. And I shudder to think what a Houdini expert might think of the mangled facts and misplaced time-lines. But as a slight and visually arresting little "what if?" tale, one that centers on a pop culture icon who still fascinates us today, Death Defying Acts is a perfectly passable period piece. Unlikely to win any awards, but should capably please its intended audience.
At the very least, both leads are really pretty.