magicians (andrew o’connor 2007)

25 05 2007

David Mitchell
Robert Webb
Jessica Stevenson

Playing like Peep Show crossed with the closing credits of Phoenix Nights, Magicians is charming rather than hilarious, with plenty of chuckles but not much substantial going on.

This is the third film in the last year to tell the story of two magicians driven to rivalry by the death of a woman they both loved. The Prestige is David Copperfield – dazzling but empty. The Illusionist is David Blaine – po-faced and sticks around too long.

Magicians is The Great Suprendo.

It doesn’t transcend Peep Show the way Shaun of The Dead was so much more than a feature-length episode of Spaced. Where Shaun took familiar personas and developed them into new and interesting characters, Magicians sticks to the Peep Show double act dynamic too closely. Mitchell’s Harry Kane is good-hearted but awkward and uptight, while Webb’s Carl is cool but feckless. Both are, well, idiots.

Because of this familiarity with the Apple/PC geeky loser personas, we are never led to believe that the guillotining of Harry’s wife is anything more than a tragic accident, the inevitable cringeworthy punchline to any hint of success the pair may have. Things just go wrong because they’re such losers.

More interesting are the tiny moments when we get a hint that maybe it wasn’t an accident, and maybe there’s a darker undercurrent to Harry’s put-upon desperation. But these moments are never explored, which is a shame as they could have sailed Magicians into blacker comedy waters than Peep Show ever navigated.

The same is true of Peter Capaldi. He essays a similarly bristling character to Malcolm Tucker, the scabrous spin doctor he plays in The Thick Of It. So when he does spew invective ticks of foul-mouthed exasperation, they’re funny, but a bit lame compared to what we’ve heard him unleash on the small-screen.

In this regard Jessica Stevenson comes off best. An early dance scene seems to suggest that Linda will be another self-deluded ditzy frump. But dancing aside, Linda is actually the most together person here. The dance – a stockroom-gestated all-too-literal interpretation of Electric Six’s Gay Bar – seems shoehorned in for David Brent-style laughs, except it isn’t that funny. But neither was Brent’s dance either. Instead, Stevenson gets to be the voice of normality, and sexy with it.

There’s space too for small-screen where-do-I-know-them-froms Darren ‘the bloke in Smack The Pony’ Boyd, Alex ‘Holby City’ MacQueen and Steve ‘Phoenix Nights’ Edge to flesh out their grotesque characters, despite the script cheating them of that killer line.

In fact nobody gets any killer lines. Which is a problem for a comedy. The Memorable Quotes section of MagiciansIMDb entry is empty. I can’t think of any laugh-out-loud quotes either.

Ultimately, Magicians just can’t shake the spectre of its POV predecessor. There isn’t a moment in the film that couldn’t have been shoehorned down into a zippy half-hour episode of Peep Show. The film also doesn’t conjure a sense of place in its Jersey setting the way that, say, Funny Bones is so anchored in Blackpool, but that’s a quibble. And there isn’t enough magic!

I don’t want to say bad things about Mitchell and Webb, or Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, but Magicians, while kind of entertaining, just doesn’t pull the rabbit out of the hat.

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