‘Biopic” is not a particularly inviting portmanteau. And the biopic isn’t a particularly inviting genre. Most biographical movies and miniseries wind up as waxen re-creations of the best-known moments from a famous person’s life. They’re like those old TV ads for greatest-hits albums. The scripts tend to be impersonal and clogged with fact-laden dialogue, and the supporting actors are usually generic and dressed up in unlived-in period costumes.
Only the exceptions — “Behind the Candelabra,” “Lincoln” — manage to bring you closer to the subject, transforming him or her from a textbook figure into a living, breathing person. And those exceptions are often thanks to a giant, dazzling lead performance, and not necessarily the script. Capturing a life in more than one dimension in 100-200 pages is a next-to-impossible challenge.
Alas, “Houdini,” a new two-part miniseries on History, is not exceptional. It’s a boilerplate biopic that fails to deliver any sense of intimacy with Harry Houdini, as it skips among Houdini’s major life events with an abundance of clunky expositional dialogue and a painfully heavy-handed voice-over. Adrien Brody gives a committed performance as the famous magician who died at 52 in 1926. He’s particularly dynamic in the scenes that reproduce Houdini’s acts, playing the expert showman and self-promoter with his wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly), as his stage partner. But ultimately Brody’s vital presence is consumed by the writing, which is not as revelatory as it pretends to be.
Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on his father Bernard C. Meyer’s book “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” the miniseries tries to fold in analytical themes involving Houdini’s need to escape and his deep attachment to his mother. In a voice-over that’s far too prominent, Houdini delivers a series of stock and pretentious lines: “The one thing I can’t seem to escape from is me,” he says, and “Fear is how I know I’m alive.” Nothing comes of any of these provocatively self-aware statements by the end of the miniseries; they just sit there, gesturing toward but failing to build a greater understanding of Houdini and his motivations.
“The only way to beat death is to put your life on the line,” Houdini says in voice-over. “But why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?” After four hours, those questions remain frustratingly unanswered.
The first half of the miniseries, premiering Monday at
9 p.m., focuses on how Erik Weisz, born in Budapest, became obsessed with illusion and evolved into America’s Houdini. His relationship with Bess is never given any substance, and the actors don’t have much chemistry together. When they begin to bicker, as he strays and she starts self-medicating with marijuana, it seems to come out of the blue. Houdini’s other major relationship is with the engineer of his tricks, Jim Collin (Evan Jones), who is little more than an adoring cypher. At times, they appear to be the only two human beings in Houdini’s life.
Meyer and director Uli Edel also dangle the unconfirmed story of how Houdini spied for America, but those scenes are left by the wayside as the miniseries moves into part 2, Tuesday at 9 p.m. The second half focuses mostly on the magician’s efforts to debunk mediums who pretend to contact the dead, and who promise him a reunion with his dead mother. He has a nasty encounter with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, who fancies herself a spiritualist, and that leads to the violent blows that result in his early death.
I suppose if you know absolutely nothing about Houdini, this History production will give you an outline. It will also give you the keys to a few of Houdini’s tricks. But you’ll have to wait if you’re looking for a biopic with emotional content, a story that evokes a real man and that feels more lifelike than a Wikipedia entry.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.