Dir: Andrew O'Connor. UK-US. 2007. 90mins.
These are boom times for British TV comedy. There is a wealth of talent working on the small screen. The continuing paradox is that so few of the best British comedians (Sasha Baron Cohen notwithstanding) make a successful transition to cinema. Magicians, made by the team behind the popular Channel 4 series Peep Show, is the latest in an increasingly long line of underwhelming British comedies featuring TV talent.
The film begins very promisingly but rapidly loses its way. The likable leads David Mitchell and Robert Webb aren't best served by a deeply contrived screenplay, and while there are some inspired set-ups and very funny gags along the way, these don't compensate for the one-dimensional characterisation and numbing predictability of the storytelling.
Prospects are hard to predict. It is worth noting that the most lambasted British comedies in recent years (for example, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men) have done reasonably well commercially, at least in the local market. Mitchell and Webb (who were in the Cambridge University Footlights together in the late 1990s) have a very loyal following: indulgent audiences, especially those watching on DVD or television, may be ready to overlook the longueurs and hone in on the occasional moments of hilarity that the film yields.
Overseas, Magicians may prove a tough sell. Last year, Confetti (in which Webb co-starred and which had a similar narrative structure to Magicians) did poorly in the US, despite an aggressive marketing campaign by Fox.
Mitchell and Webb play Harry and Karl, a magic double act whose friendship and professional partnership dissolves amid acrimony after a mishap with a guillotine. They go their separate ways: Karl has a new agent called Otto (Boyd) who will go to any lengths to get him on TV. Harry meanwhile is living a lonely bachelor existence and has a dead-end supermarket job.
The duo agree to enter together a magicians' competition on the island of Jersey, but as soon as they see each other they start bickering. In the end, they decide to compete as solo artists. Each has a love interest: though he is loath to admit it, Harry is attracted to his new assistant Linda (played in lively fashion by Jessica Stevenson). Karl, meanwhile, is drawn to a pretty young TV assistant who is convinced he is a medium.
Magicians begins with a brio which it can't keep up, and once the guillotine comes down and the partners split up, the storytelling quickly begins to stutter. Individual sequences (for instance, Harry trying to overcome his fear of flying or Karl performing his 'mindmonger' medium act or Stevenson performing her outrageous 'take me to a gay bar' dance) work well enough.
There are some clever one-liners. 'You gave the Nazis a warmer welcome that that,' one magician tells a silent and stony-faced Jersey audience (the island was occupied during World War Two) when he receives no applause. Mitchell and Webb themselves also have a strong odd couple-style rapport, with one fussy and repressed, the other is endlessly sarcastic.
Nonetheless, the build-up to the magicians' competition is handled in laborious fashion. Writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (who also script Peep Show) may have a flair for visual and verbal gags but are far less assured when it comes to creating a 90-minute narrative or developing characters, and there are too many meaningless cameos and half-developed plot points here.
The film is largely set in the seedy, shabby world of seaside comedy and magic shows. One of the technical challenges, which the film-makers don't really overcome, is to satirise this world without seeming to belong to it themselves. Production values here are only modest, and there is little of the slickness and exhaustive attention to detail that characterised (the admittedly much more expensive) Hot Fuzz.
The humour is also crude and forced - and the exasperation that the irascible compere (Peter Capaldi) feels with the bungling magic acts competing for the 'Shield' is ultimately likely to be shared by audiences too.
UK Film Council's Premiere Fund