Nothing about this Labor Day mini-series seems to make much sense. Adrien Brody (King Kong) playing world-renowned escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926)? A movie produced for the cable channel History?
Yet the two-part Houdini (beginning Monday at 9 p.m.) jells in fascinating fashion - especially the first night - despite a wildly overreaching script by Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution).
The mini-series pulls back the curtain on many of the magician's most famous feats, for instance, the metal picks he secreted about his person in order to undo handcuffs.
But some of his most shocking performances, like making an elephant disappear on the stage of New York's Hippodrome theater in 1918, are treated as sorcery with no explanation offered. Other parts of his repertoire, such as his buried-alive escapes, are not depicted at all.
The centerpiece of the film, which involves a manacled Houdini plunging from the Eads Bridge in St. Louis into an aperture hacked out of a frozen-over Mississippi River, is apparently apocryphal (although the illusionist did execute several bridge jumps, usually to promote nearby theater engagements).
The biographical aspects of Houdini's life are shackled in a stiff Freudian mold. His whole career is explained as a need to pamper and impress his immigrant mother (Eszter Ónodi).
Brody has a rather pretentious voice-over threading through the narrative, with introspective observations like "Why was I trying to beat death? What was I trying to escape?"
On the occasion of meeting his wife-to-be (House of Cards' Kristen Connolly) while she is working as a vaudevillian showgirl in Coney Island, he expostulates, "The only thing more devastating than a punch to the gut is an arrow to the heart. I never saw it coming."
The most outlandish part of Houdini shows him being recruited by the Secret Service as an international spy. His performances for Kaiser Wilhelm (Gyula Mesterházy) and for Czar Nicholas (Simon Nader)? Pure espionage.
But if you've always wanted to see Houdini getting punched by Rasputin, this is your chance.
Over the years, Houdini has been played by everyone from Tony Curtis to Arte Johnson to Harvey Keitel. Brody is a strong addition to the canon. Turns out he is quite convincing as a hammy faker. The rest of the large cast in this period melodrama is, to put it kindly, uneven.
The joltingly paced movie cramps up on its second night as it tries to unload a great deal of biographical material in a rushed manner. Houdini's fascination with aviation is disposed of in a montage. The magician's late crusade to expose psychics and mediums, which alienated him from his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (David Calder), a devout spiritualist, slows the biopic to a crawl.
For a film so rooted in psychoanalysis, Houdini doesn't do a very good job of illuminating its subject. But the showman's life still intrigues, even in this garish treatment.
9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on History.