Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Penn & Teller Get Killed" - "obscure" slept with "absurd," had a baby

Don't ever go on tv and wish someone tried to kill you. Also, don't play "Spy vs Spy"-type pranks on your best friend and co-worker. These are the lessons derived from 1989's "Penn and Teller Get Killed."

"You can imagine the sequel thing is kind of a bitch." - Penn, at the end of the movie.
You have to be prepared for a movie like this; either prepared, or in the mood for anything. Why? Because it's a mix of so many film styles and types of comedy. "PaTGK" is a comedy through and through, almost like a Zucker brothers picture.

It's also a jet-black cup of coffee, a flick whose humor can get dark, bleak, mordant... Repeated scenes of the duo's preparation and business arrangements add realism, so you feel you got a peek at the lives of celebrity magicians. Yet this film also swerves into thriller and noir, even if it mostly mocks those genres. There's a lot going on, right?

For those who don't know - Penn Jillette is a funny, forceful, cynical, 6'6" mountain of magic. He projects, an expert at misdirection, timing, and sleight of hand. He also usually comes off as a jerk.

Perhaps he's that full of life, or perhaps he's compensating for his partner, Teller. The smaller half of the act is famously mute during their performances, so Penn has to talk for two. This funny and inventive pair tend to set Penn as the bombastic and ironic showman, while Teller does much of the actual work and is often in danger. It works.

At the start of this movie, the pair appear on a talk show. Penn discusses the tour, his one painted fingernail, and the world of magic... As is his wont, he gets strange: he babbles about celebrity death threats, and vocally wishes that someone would try to kill him. Much of what follows expresses how monumentally stupid he was then.
"In the shoulder, huh? Well, at that range you were lucky." "No! I just got shot, that's not lucky. Lucky is winning the lottery."

"P&TGK" seems filmed by an invisible camera crew, one that follows the popular pair for a while. The two magicians are bound to be atypical people, and it shows. They sit on the beach and practice tricks that use drain cleaner. They irritate and hassle each other. They also decide to challenge each other with Punk'd-on-Steroids pranks - a duel they start just after Jillette's stupid announcement.

It's hysterical, really. The true-to-life feeling of their absurd behavior - everyone assumes Penn is like this - is a joy. It's even better to watch two people genuinely communicate when one of them never speaks. We follow these champion-class performers through the resulting death-wish turmoil and the strain of their personal and professional relationship.

What doesn't work? Some jokes are quietly funny, not "laugh out loud" funny; liking a broad range of comedy is nearly a must. There are some slow moments, though the dialogue or sheer absurdity make it worthwhile for the patient. Certain scenes almost feel uninteresting, but it may be that this movie is best when you don't know what's coming. Even knowing their humor, I'd say the movie's only mostly successful in hitting its goals...

"When people are talking in a foreign language, you always think they're talking about you." "He wanted to know if you're the big Yankee son of a hooker who went on tv last week and asked people to kill him."

For all the moments that occasionally drag, "P&TGK" can be terribly funny. It's also true to the style of magic's own Dynamic Duo; their humor and intelligence are everywhere. Jokes really come out of left field, and work quite nicely. It helps of course, that they're so good at their act: Teller plays "put upon" perfectly, and Penn's personality is like a piano rolling down a hill.

Great example: They deconstruct, play it up, and make it fun.

Even this won't prepare you for the sudden shift when things get serious. Played nicely, there's a great black & white sequence. How this change plays out is charming and quietly hysterical.

Shortly after this sequence, the story completely resolves itself. The plot is wrapped up with originality and skill, and the characters all get to open up to each other. This is also when the absurdity kicks into overdrive - a surprising domino effect kicks off, then plays into the credits. The closing song is The Bee Gees' "I Started A Joke," and it fits the scene beautifully. Whether you enjoy that moment depends on your sense of humor.

"It's just a lot of practice. Isn't he great?" - Penn, after Teller gently scoops up a pigeon on the street.

I liked this picture a lot, but I don't know that it's for everyone. It may be the sort of movie you only watch once or twice, tops. I'd like to believe anyone would leave this movie smiling. I'd like to believe moviegoers would have nearly-painful laughing fits from what's on the screen. Then again, I believe the full moon makes people a little crazier. Take that for what it's worth...

In closing, I should note that "Penn & Teller Get Killed" was issued as a DVD in 2009, 20 years after its release. It's not surprising, given its low exposure and box office performance. In fact, Netflix doesn't even recognize that the movie was ever made. This means the company sucks a little. I hope you find and enjoy it.

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