Director: Joe Tyler Gold & Tammy Caplan
Stage magicians have pulled a bit of a re-appearing act on cinema screens this year, with not one but four recent features focusing on ‘the third most mocked profession, right behind ventriloquists and mimes’. That rather matter-of-fact assessment comes from one of the characters in Desperate Acts of Magic and sums up the overall spirit of the venture nicely; this is by the far the least polished of the films, but I suspect it’s also the one that’s most accurate in terms of your average working magician. As a movie it’s a wobbly sort of affair, but as a sneak peek at the professional struggles of those illusionists who sit in the uneasy gap between glorified hobbyists and mainstream headliners it makes for an enjoyable watch.
Joe Tyler Gold, who was once a magician for children’s birthday parties, not only co-directs (with Tammy Caplan) but also stars as cubicle jockey Jason who is let go in what his exasperated boss calls a ‘fire-tunity’, left to pursue the professional world of magic with fresh motivation. His first day doesn’t go so well, since he’s effectively hustled by a slick duo running the shell game next to a dumpster in a business park. The fetching but icy Stacy (Valerie Dillman) steals his wallet but then later returns it—sans money—and Jason think he’s found his female assistant for the act. She’s got other ideas regarding her career and the usual underdog drama ensues, albeit against the more intriguing backdrop of an illusionist convention held at the quirky ‘Magish-Inn’.
Gold and Caplan are not filmmakers and so as a film Magic lacks an artistic hand behind the picture, which boasts pedestrian camera compositions and music utilized like a scene band-aid when transitioning between thematically different plot elements. What they do bring to the table is an authentic sense of experience and a generosity and willingness to share that experience in a candid way. Like Adam Corolla’s underrated indie boxing picture The Hammer, Gold’s testament to his early days of struggle in the magic business works because it is both charming and almost obsessively detail-oriented, which makes us feel like we are in the hands of a professional even if that profession isn’t acting or directing. The film’s greatest asset is that it is peopled by real working magicians and the convention essentially an opportunity for these different types to perform their tricks with infectious showmanship. There’s a balloon animal seminar that is genuinely funny and the individual acts are so beguiling that it actually hampers the less interesting love story, which starts to feel like filler in between shows.
The least enticing element of Desperate Acts of Magic actually turns out to be Gold himself, which isn’t the slag it may seem to be. As a performer he’s got self-deprecating charm, he’s both natural and earnest and has a good handle on sleight of hand, even when the thing he’s disguising is his own ability to manipulate our expectations. The problem is that he’s so at home in that performance that when he’s playing Jason, even if it’s a mostly thin autobiographical character, he’s less convincing and committed to it. In The Hammer, Corolla, known for being an incorrigible loud-mouth, dialed down that personality and delivered a humble human turn that gave that little movie some sustainable emotional authority. Gold doesn’t have that kind of handle on Jason as a character and the more the movie relies on his pursuance of the perfect act with his dream woman, the less successful it is.
On the other hand, the relationship angle is mostly rescued by Valerie Dillman, who comes off like a more self-possessed Chelsea Handler. Dillman is cagey and sometimes a bit too forceful—threatening to shove Gold’s wispy Jason right off the screen—but she’s also capable of showing us the human being behind the entertainer. The other large roles are mostly fine, with Jonathan Levit as Jason’s leering pal Steve, whose greatest trick seems to be getting himself into the pants of most of the women he meets, and Sascha Alexander as his exuberant groupie who grafts herself to the hapless Jason when his fickle friend unceremoniously dumps her.
Desperate Acts of Magic is a niche film, unveiling a world whose presence will no doubt seem most right to those who live inside of it. The particular trick of Gold and Caplan’s movie is that it doesn’t just vanish in its own timid puff of smoke, but instead invites us to place one hand inside the hat and see what we can pull out. It’s a genial, well-mounted ‘come and see’ for the case of the working-class magician.
Desperate Acts of Magic is now in limited release.
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