'Houdini' review: Not even Adrien Brody can pull this off

Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") stars as the legendary Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") stars as the legendary illusionist and escape artist in "Houdini," a two-part miniseries Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on History. Photo Credit: History / Nels Israelson

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REVIEW

MINISERIES "Houdini"

WHEN | WHERE 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT You know the name. Now meet the man. In this four-hour "Houdini" miniseries, he's scripted by Nicholas Meyer, writer of two acclaimed "Star Trek" movies ("The Wrath of Khan" and "The Voyage Home"). He's directed by Uli Edel, whose credits include TV's gritty "Homicide" and mondo-wacko "Twin Peaks." The pair's busy telling has Harry Houdini swiftly escaping handcuffs, jail cells and locked safes in the elegant form of Adrien Brody, Oscar-winning star of "The Pianist."

Now add that potential to the known life of Harry Houdini. The American magician, escape artist and debunker of spiritual mediums lived from 1874-1926, yet still intrigues us a century later, a cultural icon who continues to command fame and wonder. From Hungarian Jewish immigrant (nee Erich Weiss) and rural Wisconsin teen to itinerant performer and eventual global superstar -- not to mention his shocking death -- what more could a story need?

How about making Houdini a spy, tasked by the Secret Service to infiltrate the royal ranks of the World War I-era German kaiser and Russian czar? How about externalizing Houdini's psyche through narration and flashbacks? "Why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?" Here's a guy with a thing for his mother, and not enough of one for a wife (Kristen Connolly) who's increasingly alienated. When his narration confides "Some things can hit you in the gut worse than any punch," it's followed by quick-cut wallops, shown via special effects from inside skin and sinew, as the blows that will kill the man.

MY SAY That's not a spoiler, folks. That's a telegraph message. In capital letters. (Especially the fourth time around.)

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History's flashy "Houdini" is determined to skate through so many events (some of dubious veracity) and to sledgehammer home their "importance" that it undercuts any emotional uppercuts. Vignette piles upon vignette, location upon location. Yet the procession never forms a big picture of personality or insight. (Or history, for that matter.)

Narration clunkily tries to fill the narrative void. But it's blandly delivered, and by a star who might claim a feel for the role: Queens-born Brody also has a mother from Budapest, a Jewish father and a taste for magic from boyhood. Too bad The Amazing Adrien couldn't conjure some here.

BOTTOM LINE Poor Houdini. He can't get out of this one.

@Newsday

GRADE D+

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