Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Penn and Teller Get Killed

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 4


I first discovered Penn and Teller sometime in the mid-80s, I think on the David Letterman program. They were some truly twisted dudes. I remember a lot of fake gore. They were performing magic tricks, and many of them went comically amok, with spurting blood and organs pulled right out of chests. It appealled to my peculiar sense of humor. I became a fan, but was somehow not compelled enough to go and see their 1989 movie, PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED. Maybe I should've. I'd at least have nostalgia to report now.

The film opens with the duo appearing on a talk show, hanging upside down but appearing to home viewers right side up via camera trickery. When they drop objects out of their hands it appears as if gravity has been defied. The gag goes on for several minutes before the trick is revealed. The talk show host, your typically well coiffed smart aleck, asks the duo dumb questions and hurls insults at them. When the host asks Penn what he really wants in life, he states that he would really love it if someone would try to kill him.

The film then settles into comic warfare: Teller, who never speaks, plays elaborate gags on Penn who then retaliates with something even more elaborate. While Penn tries to walk through a detector at the airport, for example, Teller keeps dropping metal objects into his partner's jacket, eventually requiring his partner to strip in front of an increasingly irritated screener. Penn figures out the gag, then gets back at Teller by handcuffing him while he's on a pay phone. A toy gun is attached to the cuffs and as Teller lifts his hands, the barrel comes into view of airport security. And so on.

The gags will grow amusingly complex as the film goes on. They are quite entertaining. One of them involves a debunking of "psychic surgery". If PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED had been a one hour cable special, this would've been a satisfying piece of entertainment. But a movie that tries to have some semblance of a story requires a bit more than just a series of skits, with little more than a half-baked (though interesting) plotline. What of Penn's cavalier statement on national television? Sure enough, soon he is getting shot in parking lots and stabbed for real while walking down the street. Someone took the challenge seriously. Or. Did. They?

In a cinematic Chinese box like this, you can't dispel any possibility. I was fooled more than once. This is a truly unpredictable movie, and this is its best quality. Well, that, and the fact the film features a pitch black finale that took some chutzpah to pull off and stay true to. If you sit through this thing you'll get my meaning. If PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED has any value at all it is in its surprises, so I won't ruin them for you. I'm not saying that the title tells all, but...just like I wouldn't say that about EATING RAOUL, but.....

But the most confusing, fascinating, and inexplicable thing to me was how the late Arthur Penn, who helmed such essential films as BONNIE AND CLYDE and LITTLE BIG MAN, came to not only direct but also produce this movie, his last. Badly, at that! Was he a big fan of P & T? Friends with them? Was it because they shared the name "Penn"? I can't figure it out. It's a shame that this film is so poorly paced and edited, that scenes do not flow together and feel unfinished. Maybe this was just a big middle finger to the public, a typical P & T ploy, but I'm not sure. Penn's final monologue may provide some clues.....

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