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Sunday, November 24, 2013

DESPERATE ACTS OF MAGIC -- DVD review by porfle

I'm a sucker for the art of magic, and a movie that's able to incorporate it into the storyline in interesting ways can't be all bad.  Fortunately, DESPERATE ACTS OF MAGIC (2013) wouldn't be all bad even without the magic, but it certainly helps. 

Some close-up sleight of hand with a deck of cards during the opening titles (printed on the cards themselves) lets us know that we're going to see the real thing during this movie, without fancy camera tricks or special effects.

Then we settle into the story of office drone Jason Kant (writer and co-director Joe Tyler Gold,  who based the story on his own experiences) trudging through another work day while dreaming of being a full-time magician. 

After his perceptive boss releases him from the bondage of employment ("consider this a fire-a-tunity" he says encouragingly) Joe hooks up with former "magic camp" buddy and successful magician Steve (a very likable Jonathan Levit, WAR OF THE WORLDS 2: THE NEXT WAVE,  UNSPEAKABLE) to help him make the transition into the wonderful world of magic.

This bright, cheerful low-budget effort has already begun to ingratiate itself when Jason runs into blonde cutie Stacy (Valerie Dillman, veteran of a bunch of TV ranging from "Dexter" all the way back to "Murder She Wrote") in a magical meet-cute--she's a shill  for a street hustler specializing in the old shell game--that results in their hatching a plan to enter an upcoming magic competition together. 

But as soon as Jason mentions the word "assistant", she leaves in a huff.  Make that a minute and a huff.  At any rate, she balks at being anybody's "assistant" and enters the contest as Jason's competition.  Abashed, Jason writes a brand new act in which the assistant turns the tables on the magician and takes over the act.  But now he can't even get Stacy to read it.

What all this leads to is the usual romantic-comedy complications made more tolerable, and a lot more fun, by being laced with plenty of wonderful displays of legerdemain by both the leads and a host of masterful guest performers in lesser roles.  Gold and Levit are old hands at this stuff,  while novice Dillman amazes with some deft moves of her own, with her character's autobiographical audition act for the magic competition being a highlight. 

Of course, we know that Jason and Stacy are eventually going to get back together and perform the new act that he's written,  but until then one of Steve's ardent groupies, Ellen (Sascha Alexander), steps in to take her place and get Jason into the finals.  Alexander makes Ellen a wonderfully, vibrantly ditzy comic character without going over the top, enriching the film's comedy quotient while the other plot elements work themselves out in pleasantly-unsurprising fashion.  

The film is deftly directed (Gold's co-director Tammy Caplan appears briefly as a harried mom who orders a "magic-gram" which Jason must perform for her sullen kid) and looks good for such a low-budget production, with a brisk pace and a jazzy, energetic musical score. 

The two stars have a good natural ability at both acting and magic,  and manage to be quirky without getting cutesy.  John Getz, who was such a magnificent bastard in David Cronenberg's THE FLY, gets to play a much toned-down version of that here as a crotchety, combative magic contest coordinator. 

I like the way we're invited into the magicians' fantastical subculture, getting to vicariously participate in the easy comraderie shared by its willfully eccentric denizens.  These scattered moments when we get to stop and watch someone perform are what make the movie as fascinating as it sometimes is, and I wish there was more of that.  But I guess they had to squeeze a story in there somewhere to keep it from turning into a documentary.

The DVD is in 16x9 widescreen with stereo sound.  No subtitles.  Extras consist of a chummy commentary with directors Gold and Caplan,  a deleted scene, a behind-the-scenes slideshow,  and a trailer.

DESPERATE ACTS OF MAGIC never really gets all that desperate--it's mainly just a sparkly, magic-tinged romp through rom-com territory that manages to get its second wind whenever the plot threatens to get bogged down. The ending, while pleasant, is rather abrupt as well as being extremely predictable.  Still, I wanted this movie to end as I predicted it  would, and it did, so I can hardly complain.

Buy it at
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