Two magic legends screw with viewers and each other in Penn & Teller Get Killed

Two magic legends screw with viewers and each other in Penn & Teller Get Killed

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has us thinking about other films about magicians.

Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989) 
Over the course of nearly four decades as a team, Penn and Teller have conquered Broadway and Vegas, created a hit TV series and award-winning specials, published bestselling books, and generally eclipsed every other comedy-magician act. Their one attempt to break into movies, however, way back in 1989, was a notorious box-office flop, lasting only a single week in theaters before gathering dust on video-store shelves. Penn & Teller Get Killed (“What more do you want?” asks the tagline), written by the duo themselves, features an absurdist plot in which Penn tells a talk-show host that he wishes somebody were trying to murder him, triggering a vendetta from a crazed “fan” (David Patrick Kelly) that may or may not be part of the most elaborate practical joke ever conceived. Along the way, there’s plenty of time for Penn’s voluble aggression and Teller’s silent-clown mugging.

Anyone hoping for a proper movie with a compelling narrative will be gravely disappointed, and the film doesn’t exactly burnish the reputation of its legendary director, Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde, Little Big Man). As a vehicle for Penn and Teller’s devious sense of humor, however, it features plenty of isolated first-rate bits. Some, like the talk-show opening (with Penn and Teller apparently seated at a desk on camera, but visibly hanging upside down to the studio audience), simply replicate the kind of material with which they made their name. Others, as when Teller makes Penn repeatedly set off an airport metal detector, just for fun, create a new dynamic in which the boys fuck with each other rather than double-teaming the audience or unscrupulous charlatans (though psychic surgery figures prominently in one subplot). The gradual escalation of pranks and subterfuges rivals David Mamet for Byzantine rug-pulling, culminating in an ending that hilariously employs and literalizes the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke.” 

Availability: Penn & Teller Get Killed is available on DVD from Warner Bros. (though Netflix doesn’t carry it, for some reason) and can be rented or purchased digitally on Amazon and other sites.