Premise: The, err, “true story,” of how the great Harry Houdini went on a secret mission as a U.S. spy.
About: Ah, Hollywood. What a funny place. For shit to come together, all these different “buzzy” paths have to cross. A hot director has to come across a hot screenwriter has to come across a hot actor. Then, and only then, are projects born. Why? Because everyone n Hollywood is a fucking wimp and they need all the stars aligned before putting their names on the line. Here we have Dan Trachtenberg coming off the success of Cloverfield Lane. We have Noah Oppenheim, who’s receiving love for his Jackie screenplay. And I’m sure we’ll have some hot actor playing Houdini named soon. I mean, we got Bradley Cooper attached to a project yesterday. Why can’t we do it again? Keep in mind this is the 2011 draft and there have likely been rewrites.
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Details: 133 pages (May 13th, 2011 draft)
The trick with any biopic is always…
Wait a minute. Did I really start this with “The trick with…?”
Do I have any shame?
You all know the answer to that so why even attempt the illusion?
What I really wish Houdini could make disappear is biopics. Now that would be a trick worth paying for. But in the absence of this act of wonderment, at least cast a spell on the genre, one that turns the biopic into something actually good.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the wool was not pulled over my eyes. But rather we got a biopic that’s truly different. I snarfed. I gasped. I wondered how the fuck this was conceived. But most of all, I was relieved. A biopic that didn’t feel like a biopic!
Houdini starts out like you think any biopic would start out. We get one of those oft-used cross-cuts between the present (Houdini trying to salvage a buried-alive trick gone wrong) and the past (Houdini as a child stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family). I figured I was in for one long biopic retread.
But then things get weird. President Woodrow Wilson calls Houdini and tells him that his 28 year-old daughter, Margaret, has been kidnapped by someone in France. Wilson believes Houdini’s unique talents make him the perfect agent to go and retrieve his daughter.
Looking for a new challenge, Houdini teams up with Wilson’s stuffy lackey, Andrew Day, and the two seahorse their way to La Francoise. Once there, Houdini calls upon old friend (and rival) Chung Ling Soo, a famous magician who’s been known to publicly roast Houdini. But no worries, it’s all for show, as is Chung himself, who’s actually, under all the make-up, a white American!
Houdini, Soo, and Day find their main lead in a dude who arrogantly calls himself “The Elder.” The Elder is a white spooky motherfucker who’s so ugly, he deserves to be chased. However, when he leads them to Margaret, we learn that Margaret wasn’t kidnapped at all. She was trying to piss off daddy by dating an older weirdo. Those spunky president’s daughters. I hope Ivanka’s not taking notes.
But, as it turns out, The Elder really IS bad. And when he kills Soo, Houdini swears revenge, chasing him to Istanbul. He’s joined by the increasingly annoying Day and the closest thing to a 1914 Women’s Rights Movement in Margaret. Will these three mismatched wackadoodles youngify The Elder? Or might this be the one trick Houdini can’t pull off?
Okay, I gotta give it to Oppenheim. He got me. I thought this was going to be another lame-o biopic. Instead we get, “What if Harry Houdini were Indiana Jones?” Granted this was written during a time when every writer was doing this shit (IP-free historical figures as superheroes). But with all those projects dying off, Houdini-as-Indiana feels fresh again.
Look, it’s simple, guys. When you’re writing in a hot genre, you have to be cleverer than the next guy. I was going to stab my eyeballs out with overpriced Universal City Walk Harry Potter magic wands if this was yet another biopic. By doing something that NOBODY ELSE IS DOING makes this a project worthy of production.
Yet here was the problem with this approach. It didn’t exploit Houdini’s unique talents enough. I would argue that Houdini turned into a straight agent. Yeah, he was braver than his cohorts. But that doesn’t exploit his one advantage – the fact that he was a magician. Especially if you’re going to go so far as to have Houdini break into places like, “The Fortress of the Seven Towers.”
Then there’s the main character dynamic pulling us along. From a Screenwriting 101 perspective, it was good. You have the lawless Houdini paired up with the by-the-book Day, and then the opinionated Margaraget never far behind. This led to a requisite amount of conflict-infused dialogue.
And yet… that dialogue was as predictable as the taste of morning-after Chinese good.
That’s the thing with relationship dynamics. They’re like everything. If you do them the way they’re supposed to be done, with everyone saying and acting the way that “works best for a screenplay,” they become stale, like an uninspired casting choice. Yes, Ryan Gosling may be the perfect actor to play the brooding young anti-hero in that latest drama. But haven’t we seen him here before? And doesn’t that make his performance less exciting?
For this reason, never be afraid to go against convention, to try new things out. You may find that they don’t work. Hell, you may try several things that fail and end up right back where you started, with that crazy vs. conservative dynamic. But you may also find something beautiful and unexpected, like the weird dynamic between Hank and Manny in Swiss Army Man.
Plot-Wise, Houdini is an exercise in CHANGING PLOT GOALS. We start out with saving a kidnapped daughter. Then the goal becomes revenge. And finally the goal becomes to stop a madman who’s planning to attack all of Europe. Remember, goals can be achieved at any time in a script, as long as you replace them with new goals of greater importance. And Oppenheim does that here.
I’ll finish this by saying Houdini was a fun romp. But while its unexpected left turn into Indiana Jones territory left your adventure bone tickled, no room was ever created to explore Houdini himself. And isn’t that the one reason to watch a biopic? To see what makes a man tick. There was no ticking here. More hot-dogging. And while that hot-dogging was fun, a character exploration would’ve added some much needed mustard.
Then again, will an Indiana Jones starved public even care?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I was thinking, what could a writer do now in the biopic space that isn’t being done much? And I came up with a pretty cool idea. Rivalries. Instead of writing about one person, write about two. And when I say two, I mean two people who really hate each other. In any movie idea, the main thing you’re looking for is tons of conflict. And nasty rivalries have that. I googled historic rivalries right after this review and found tons that haven’t been put to screen before. Could be an opportunity, guys. Just throwing it out there!