Just as the arrival of sound-recording technology forced filmmakers to adjust accordingly, the public's diminishing appetite for Tarantino knockoffs has left an entire school of filmmakers with no choice but to change with the times. James Merendino, the writer and director of 1997's The Real Thing (a.k.a. Livers Ain't Cheap), has been lucky enough to find work in the post-Tarantino era by switching genres, following The Real Thing with the abysmal coming-of-age film S.L.C. Punk! and most recently with the quirky road comedy Magicians. An endearingly modest film that owes less to Tarantino than to gentle show-biz fables like Bowfinger and Ed Wood, Magicians stars Til Schweiger as a manic, Siegfried & Roy-obsessed aspiring magician who recruits a stoic, lightning-fast thief (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) to be his partner. Neither is particularly skilled in the art of illusion, but they soon find a colorful, larger-than-life manager (Alan Arkin) to show them the ropes, and a fetching assistant (Claire Forlani) to give their act sex appeal. Once assembled, the hapless team sets out for Las Vegas, enduring a comically nightmarish series of gigs along the way. Like The Real Thing, Magicians is visually impressive, saturated with lurid reds, greens, and yellows, populated by colorful misfits, and imbued with an all-too-healthy sense of its own quirkiness. But where the characters in The Real Thing were mostly motors to keep the plot moving, Merendino's handling of Magicians betrays a fondness for his would-be Houdinis. He's helped considerably by a strong, spirited cast, particularly Bentivoglio, whose reserved performance serves as an excellent counterpoint to the manic comic shenanigans of Schweiger and Arkin. Like its protagonists, Magicians gets by largely on the strength of its modest charm, but its generous comic spirit keeps it engaging and brisk, right up to a surprisingly touching finale in which Bentivoglio's transformation from sullen cynic to true believer culminates in an understated bit of magic realism.
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