Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Unsung!: Penn and Teller Get Killed

This past weekend I saw two movies about magic. One of them, the subject of this column, WAS magic. The other one was the mediocre The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Penn and Teller Get Killed is a very odd film. I love it, and one of the things I love about it is its very oddness. Apparently, according to the internets (blah blah blah… series of tubes… blah blah blah) some people really hate this film. I think the reason why some people hate it is either 1) they are not fans of the two stars, whose appeal is, admittedly, selective; or 2) the film’s second act is uninspired and longish. Yet taken on the basis of the first and last twenty minutes alone, this film is an undiscovered gem.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Stage magicians Penn and Teller appear on a live, late-night variety show (think Saturday Night Live by way of David Letterman) and perform an amazing trick. During the interview portion of the show, Penn loudly suggests that he wishes someone was trying to kill him; it would lend meaning and immediacy to his life. As the film progresses, the two magicians play a string of increasingly elaborate practical jokes inspired by Penn’s televised death wish. Penn will learn how monumentally stupid it is to say that he wishes someone was trying to kill him on national television. The practical jokes grow darker, more complicated, and more surreal.

And boy, Penn Gillette was skinny twenty-four years ago.

This film comes across like Little League David Mamet, as layers of reality are slowly peeled away to reveal new and different realities. For example, near the movie’s end, Teller enters the apartment of a deranged fan. The fan is hanging upside-down in gravity boots, attempting to recreate the amazing trick from the beginning of the film. The fan is filming himself, and has flipped the image on his video monitor to appear right-side up; Teller is the one who now appears upside-down. The monitor’s black and white image is distorted; the shot resembles an M.C. Escher print, or something from Alice in Wonderland. It is Penn and Teller’s fever dream about the downside of celebrity.
CAVEAT: I have been an enormous Penn and Teller fan ever since I first saw them on television. I have read their books (Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends and How To Play With Your Food are both classics), I have attended their live shows, and I slavishly followed all eight seasons of their trenchant Showtime series Bullshit! I love the principles that inform much of their best work: “believe in science instead of superstition,” “never let anyone sell you magic tricks as anything besides magic tricks,” and “life is an exciting, fun-filled adventure.”

Penn and Teller themselves wrote the screenplay to Penn and Teller Get Killed and it is a great freshman effort, although it is definitely too episodic. An “Airplane Security Screening” scene early on is a model of concision and exposition, and could be the best single scene in the movie. Other aspects of the script only seem banal, but end up paying off – for instance, Penn exhorting the studio audience in the opening scene to shout “Yes!” every time he bellows, “Are we LIVE?” comes back in a twisted, haunting way that I think is a mark of superior screenwriting.

“Are we LIVE?!”

I’ll admit, there are problems with the second act. (This column is called “Unsung”, not “I Promise You A Perfect Movie”.) After starting off like gangbusters, the film slows to a crawl during the middle third with a long, heartfelt, and seemingly endless tangent about a “psychic surgery” charlatan. This bit is heavy-handed, BUT at least it is heavy-handed in the cause of something admirable. Lately, I find most comedy films heavy handed in a much worse way: the filmmakers are simply not skilled at what they do. The overlong middle third of Penn and Teller Get Killed effectively gives the film two “bookend” segments, each with a very different tone. The first third is light-hearted; the final third is very dark business indeed.

In the course of the film, many of Penn and Teller’s personal pet peeves (try saying that ten times fast) get their bones picked: 1) the intrusiveness of religion, 2) their disdain for alcohol, 3) their love of science and learning, and 4) the problems caused when charlatans try to pass off magic as something other than illusion.

I also love what the film has to say about magic versus stunts. In a recent Reddit interview, Penn Gillette defined art as “when the intellectual and the visceral meet in an immediate, surprising way.” The sense of wonder inspired by good sleight of hand is one thing—“stunt-iness” is another thing entirely. Stunt-iness is represented in Penn and Teller Get Killed by mean-spirited practical jokes that get out of hand, in Burt Wonderstone, stunt-iness is represented by the Jim Carrey character (a street magician in the mold of David Blaine or Chriss Angel) who is more of a masochist than a magician.

Penn and Teller Get Killed tends to grow on you after repeat viewings. Like most good comedies, there are little jokes buried beneath the big ones. (One subtle running joke involves Penn always deciding what take-out food the group will eat that night by… well, you just need to see it.) I also think Warner Brothers collected much moola from the film’s product placements – notably the fawning, incessant displays of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City and Diet Coke.

Here is the kicker: Penn and Teller Get Killed was directed by Arthur Fucking Penn! In fact, it was (Arthur Fucking) Penn’s final film. You know of whom I speak, right? Bonnie and Clyde Arthur Fucking Penn? The Miracle Worker Arthur Fucking Penn? Little Big Man Arthur Fucking Penn? Yeah, that guy. In fact, I have always harbored a suspicion that P & T wanted Arthur Penn for this project (or Arthur Penn was interested in this project) because the second half of the film seems strangely reminiscent of Mickey One, the film that wrote the book on paranoid existential angst and is another great, little-seen Arthur Fucking Penn film. Or maybe one Penn just wanted to work with another (Fucking) Penn?

The film’s supporting cast is also full of delights: playwright Christopher Durang shows up as an airport Jesus freak; Jon Cryer has a bit part as a young student watching television; Penn and Teller’s mentor, James Randi (a man who debunks psychics for a living) shows up as a mystified audience member; and Tom Sizemore plays a two-bit hood who robs Teller under the Atlantic City boardwalk. I pause here to consider how many famous actors got their starts playing similar roles – for instance, Sylvester Stallone and Jeff Goldblum both got their starts playing two-bit hoods, in Bananas and Death Wish, respectively.

Watching the film, it is easy to imagine the studio interference that thwarted Penn and Teller from making the movie they obviously wanted to make. Their female booking agent Carlotta, who seems to be dating Penn, serves no function other than to give Penn someone to talk to who can talk back AND reassure the audience that the two magicians are not homosexuals. The very end of the film too, I am sure, was messed with by a studio that saw it as “too dark.”

This film would have gone down in history as having one of the all-time great comedy endings if they had just allowed the camera to continue tracking back on the final (amazing) shot as the final (perfect) song plays. BUT someone thought it would be better if Penn had a smarmy little narration tag at the very end, which almost completely blunts the impact of the otherwise flawless ending.

This is a phenomenon that Patrick and I have discussed on the podcast before—movies that go on THIRTY SECONDS TOO LONG. The Woman in Black should have lost the epilogue. Cabin in the Woods needs to end thirty seconds earlier than it does. I have always thought Spielberg’s AI should have ended thirty minutes earlier – when little Haley Joel Osment is trapped in that submarine, reaching out for the statue he cannot possess, that’s the human condition right there. Fade out. Fin. Penn and Teller Get Killed only needs to lose its last thirty seconds of narration to have one of the best goddamn endings ever.

Penn and Teller Get Killed is available as a Warner Brothers MOD DVD. Those crafty bastards at the YouTubes have also posted this entire film, and you have your choice of one big video file or the movie broken up into nine little bite-sized pieces.

FINAL TANGENT: The film gets so twisty at times with tricks within tricks within tricks that when my MOD DVD froze at Chapter 7, I thought it was part of the gag. Did Penn and Teller actually manufacture a DVD that reliably malfunctioned at Chapter 7? Seriously, I wondered. This is a testament to how effectively the film establishes its “everything is a con” atmosphere.


  1. This sounds great, JB! I'm a pretty big Penn & Teller fan - not just for their "magic" but for their personal philosophy (especially as evidenced by "Bullshit!") - but I've never seen this - sounds very interesting - I'll definitely try to check it out!

    And I so know what you mean about the 30 seconds too long thing - here's one for you - wouldn't the end of The Dark Knight Rises been a bit more interesting (and Nolanish) if it had simply cut on Alfred looking up and smiling (instead of actually showing Bruce)? It's like they're afraid we're not QUITE going to get it sometimes and they just have to beat us over the head with that extra 30 seconds of THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENS.

    1. Yes, Alfred smiles, fade to black, and you have an ending almost as good as Inception's!

  2. I'm looking forward to giving this movie a shot. I vaugely remember this movie when it was first out but Penn & Teller used to scare me as a kid. Did they ever do a trick that involved someone bleeding a lot? I seem to remember that for some reason.

    1. The bloody trick you reference is IN THIS MOVIE!

  3. I've loved Penn & Teller ever since I saw them onstage in The Refrigerator Tour in Chicago in 1991. I used to tape their appearances off TV (I rewatched one NBC special, in particular, dozens of times), I read their books and even dabbled in [very bad] sleight-of-hand myself, inspired by their brilliance.

    I've seen this movie two or three times (over a decade ago) and remember it fondly. Now I need to watch it again ASAP!

    Great column, JB.

    1. Yes, I first saw them live on the Refrigerator Tour as well. Remember "Mofo, the Amazing, Mind-Reading Monkey?"

  4. This movie was my first exposure to Penn & Teller when we rented it in 1989(?). I haven't seen it since but I remember enjoying the first half of the film and becoming weary of its curcuitous narrative as it progressed.
    But the film was enough to spark an interest in its stars that lives on.

    It sounds as though I was too young to appreciate the cleverness of its convolutions at the time so it would be interesting to revisit this as an adult.

  5. Yes, I could easily see young people getting lost and losing interest during the film's endless middle section.

  6. Seeing this post a few years on because I was searching for info about P&TGK... Agreed: great ending before the narration. I had to comment because I couldn't agree more about AI. In the theater, I was expecting the end in the submarine scene. It would have been the best possible ending for that movie.