Death Defying Acts (2007): Gillian Armstrong’s Houdini Movie, Starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones

Despite many efforts, there has not been a really good movie about the legendary magician Harry Houdini, and Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts will not change that record.

I leave it up to historians to determine the degrees of accuracy and authenticity of this star-driven supernatural romantic thriller, which centers on the relationship between the charismatic Houdini, played by the handsome Aussie Guy Pearce, and a seductive con artist and single mother Mary, played by the physically alluring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The movie world-premiered at the 2007 Toronto Film Fest, where it got mixed reviews, and has already played to middling results in the U.K. and Australia. The Weinstein Company is releasing the picture on July 11 in (or against) the company of such summer top guns as “Hellboy II,” “The Dark Knight” (the best picture of the year to date), “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the femme-driven musical “Mamma Mia! Which means that few people would see the film.

“Death Defying Acts” will also suffer in comparison to two recent features about magicians, “The Illusionist,” which was mediocre, and the better “The Prestige,” directed by Chris Nolan, which were also period pieces set in London.

You can’t really blame the director, Gillian Armstrong, who’s one of the most gifted helmers around, though she seems to have problems in choosing material commensurate with her considerable technical skills (her last feature was “Charlotte Gray,” starring Cate Blanchett).

The central performers are appealing, if not completely credibly cast: Pearce has played American characters more convincingly in “L.A. Confidential,” “Memento,” and others. Strangely, there is no strong chemistry between Pearce and Zeta-Jones, which presents a further obstacle in enjoying this saga, which is a romance of sorts.

The best turn is given by the child actress Saoirse Ronan as Zeta-Jones’ plucky and resourceful daughter. Ronan was Oscar-nominated for “Atonement” last year and will be seen later this year in Peter Jackson’s fall release “Bones.” For much needed comic relief, the film offers a broadly comedic turn by Timothy Spall (a Mike Leigh regular) as Sugarman, Houdini’s overly protective manager.

Using the enigma-driven structure (“Rosebud”) of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” with a touch of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, the narrative is based on a single but intriguing premise: The guilt-ridden Houdini is eager to know what were his mother’s last words before she died.

The story is set during the career-height of Houdini, the German-born, American-raised, who still intrigues us decades after his death. In 1926, 13 years after his mother passed away, Houdini still regrets not being present at his mother’s bedside. He decides to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who can help him contact his deceased mother and reveal her final words.

Enter the destitute and uneducated con artist Mary McGarvie (Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Ronan) who are determined to win the prize at all costs. In Mary’s psychic act, Benji collects information on the audience, which her mother then uses to con them into believing they can reach out to their loved ones. Road to the money is full of obstacles, prime among which is Houdini’s manager, Sugarman.

Mary charms the magician, but as their affair progresses, the ever-suspicious Sugarman tries to prevent Houdini from becoming too involved with Mary, by offering her money to leave the scene. Mother and daughter claim they will vanish as soon as they secure the reward, but when Sugarman realizes he can’t get rid of them, he gives Mary a key to Houdini’s chest. Caught searching, Mary claims she was just looking for something to channel the psychic energy of Houdini’s mom.

When Mary and Benji fail to provide any useful clues, Sugarman tells them that Houdini was out performing when his mother was dying. Unable to perform the experiment, Mary decides to leave. Benji, however, is having a fit. She channels Houdini’s mother’s words–Kaddish–then addressing Houdini as “Erich,” his original Jewish name, in a German-accented English, wondering why he isn’t with her. Is Benji conducting a genuine sance or a skillful scheme of impersonation

Ashamed due to the fact that a note he wrote to confirm the veracity of the experiment is revealed to be blank, Houdini leaves, and the McGarvies collect the $10,000 reward. Declaring his love and commitment for Mary, Houdini then embarks on a world tour. During his travels, he’s climbing a set of stairs when a red-haired prankster shockingly punches him and ruptures his appendix, leading to his death.

The film’s main problems are it rambling narrative and lack of in-depth multi-layered characterization: “Death Defying Acts” is caught in the eternal dilemma between plot-driven and character-motivated feature; there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter.