Film Review: Desperate Acts of Magic

Low-key, low-budget but highly likeable comedy about magicians in all their trickery.

“Welcome to the third most mocked profession, right behind ventriloquists and mimes,” says a magician’s store employee to Jason (Joe Tyler Gold) on the day he is fired from his job and decides to take up his hobby full-time. Jason determines to take his act to the Brotherhood of Magicians convention (unfortunately known as the “BM Convention”), on the advice of best friend and fellow conjurist Steve (Jonathan Levit). As the requisite comely female assistant, he chooses a recently met woman named Stacy (Valerie Dillman), despite the fact that she picked his pocket during a shell-game street incident.

Gold, who wrote and co-directed Desperate Acts of Magic with Tammy Caplan, is himself a former birthday-party magician, and this slight yet quite endearing film benefits from the scruffily observed authenticity he brings to it, as well as a nicely dry sense of humor and full awareness of the absurdity of both his premise and profession. Seeing how little real interest Jason takes in his IT duties, his erstwhile boss encourages him to pursue his bliss with “Consider this a fire-tunity.” And while the presentation of the world of magicians may not have the elaborate vision and execution someone like Christopher Guest might have brought to it, this modest but droll take more than suffices.

Although the film is rife with entertaining feats of legerdemain, Jason, staying at the appropriately cheesy hostelry The Magish-Inn, announces, “I want my magic to be about people and relationships, not about props.” And damn if the film doesn’t achieve this as well, ringing many clever, surprising, performance-art-savvy changes on the concept of the traditional magic act. Although as an actor Gold is physically completely unprepossessing and not all that technically skilled, he nevertheless grows on you, the ultimate underdog in a field already overpopulated by such. Dillman has a good, sexy wryness akin to Chelsea Handler, whom she resembles, and their rocky relationship, marked by her admirable, staunchly feminist stance in this chauvinistic, male-dominated milieu, is charted with a bracingly spicy brio. (Incidentally, the best magician’s distaff assistant is currently on view off-Broadway in the show Old Hats, wherein Bill Irwin transforms himself into the most hilariously cheesy Las Vegas drag queen imaginable.)

Another funny dame rounds out the cast in the person of Sascha Alexander as Ellen, a hysterically needy wackadoo whom Jason takes up with when Stacy walks out on him. This dizzy dame is as scattered as Stacy is maniacally focused, but her unpredictable antics and unhinged mind are every bit as amusing, and more welcome estrogen in this ultimate nerd universe.