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A review of "Penn & Teller Get Killed" (1989)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

Penn & Teller Get Killed is basically like a primer for dark comedy.  It's just cruel enough to give you a punch in the gut, but not so laden with anger that you would be put off.  The laughs are a little bit light, and there is a momentum-destroying tangent late in the game, but ultimately it ends up being a decent flick.  This is a must for Penn & Teller fans and a recommendation for people who are fans of '80s comedies in general.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

I hope I don't need to tell you who Penn & Teller are.  I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "popular" magician, but Penn & Teller must be as close as you can get.  Known sometimes as the Bad Boys of Magic - which I imagine is kind of like saying you're the Bad Boys of Cup Stacking or the Bad Boys of Dog Shows - they are infamous for their sardonic humor and occasional political diatribes.

Penn & Teller are probably the only magicians I can think of who have widespread, multi-format media exposure.  They've released multiple books, videos, specials, and TV shows, including the amazing Bullshit!, which was really wonderful until around Season 5 or so.  (You can pretty much stop watching when you get to the one on taxes.  I don't know about you, but I don't need any millionaires whining to me about how angry they get having to pay the IRS.  The poor bastards.)

With this kind of exposure, I'm shocked at the low number of overall ratings for their movie, Penn & Teller Get Killed.  It is, as far as I know, their only feature film, not counting bit parts, specials, or other non-narrative productions.  It stands on IMDb with a paltry 1,400 ratings and somehow has less than a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is one of those movies that has taken me by surprise as an adult. I saw P&TGK many times when I was growing up and I just assumed that it was a huge hit.  Didn't everyone see this movie?  Then one day I decide to start a blog and I realize that not only is the most common reaction, "Those guys made a movie?", but also the people who have seen it aren't giving it much love.

Of course, it shouldn't have been much of a surprise.  If the movie had any kind of success, then we'd probably be spoiled for choice with follow-up P&T features.  As it stands, the movie flopped and America decided that we didn't need magicians on the screen.

Less-Than-Fun Fact!  This is the movie that finally killed Arthur Penn's film career.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Plot

The movie must have been pitched as a vehicle for P&T to do magic tricks the same way that most big screen debuts for comedians are set up as a way for them to just do their act for 90 minutes.  "It's Larry the Cable Guy, but he's a soldier!"  Even so, they put a little more effort into the story so that it's not just a string of tricks - it actually is a movie.

The premise is that Penn is being stalked by a psychotic fan after he announces on a late night talk show that he wishes somebody was trying to kill him.  In context, it's not as insane a comment as it sounds; he's joking about how exciting an action star's life seems to be in movies, and so it would probably be a thrill ride if somebody was trying to kill him in real life.

While dealing with the fan, Penn and Teller play a variety of cruel pranks on one another - sometimes elaborate and sometimes not.  For example, in one of the more over-the-top schemes, Teller and Penn's girlfriend team up to A) get the girlfriend's uncle to pretend to be suffering from cancer; B) get Penn & Teller to perform holistic surgery for the uncle in order to debunk it as shenanigans; C) pretend that there is an angry holistic surgeon who is now losing money because the uncle did not pay for his treatment; D) hire actors who "kidnap" Penn on behalf of the surgeon; and E) threaten to perform actual surgery on Penn so they can harvest his organs and sell them on the black market.

As an example of a much simpler prank, Teller rolls a tiny metal ball back and forth through a metal detector at an airport, thus causing it to go off every time Penn walks through.

Since they prank each other so often, a significant amount of the run-time is thus spent either on the pranks themselves, or on the confusion and suspense as to whether the death threats against Penn are part of another even more elaborate prank.

This is where the movie both fails and succeeds, in my opinion.  The good news is that the pranks are often clever and funny.  The bad news is that when the movie tries to shy away from them and focus on the central narrative, it is often less interesting.

Nowhere is this more problematic than the third-act turn.  There's a certain point at which they go under protective police custody.  The movie suddenly throws on the brakes and you have to sit through an interminable scene wherein Penn narrates a hard-boiled pulp novel parody, followed by an overlong sequence on a houseboat where nothing really happens.  All told, you've got maybe a 20 minute dead zone.  I remember that whenever I watched this as a kid I'd use that time as an intermission.

But when the movie comes back, it sets up one of the greatest endings I've ever seen.  It's a great sequence that begins with an awful, shocking moment that plays out seriously... and then it tries to outdo the shock with melodrama... and then builds up into, well, basically just a pile of dead bodies.  Just trust me.  It's funny.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Socio-Cultural Relevance

Penn & Teller have always been mouthpieces for libertarianism, skepticism, and reason.  While I can't get behind that first one so much, I appreciate that they do what they can for the other two.

One of the great hidden joys in watching this movie is that you get to see a sort of Junior Bullshit! sequence early on as part of the aforementioned psychic surgery bit.  In their usual format, Penn gives the audience his spiel while Teller does some silly antics in the background (sideground?).  To be fair, it really doesn't have a place in the movie - they might as well have literally turned to the camera and said, "Psychic surgery is wrong" and then went back to the plot.  Even so, as a Bullshit! fan, I can't help but love the whole sequence.

This part of the movie must also speak deeply to one of the main reasons the movie failed.  The movie assumes that you're on board with a couple of pranksters who enjoy tormenting each other and disproving deeply-held notions about faith and hope.  I get the feeling that while there has always been a subset of society that can get behind that, most of the time - especially in the '80s - people want something softer.

Magic has never been taken seriously.  The concept of a magician is so thoroughly linked with schlock and bad jokes that there is an inherent lack of sex appeal.  So when you tell people that there's a comedy about a couple of magicians, they're probably not expecting two guys to joke about suicide and tell you that your God is dead.  In this way, P&T have always been dancing on the fringe of pop culture.

But thanks in part to the Internet, more people than ever are skeptics and non-believers.  More people are also thoroughly unimpressed about the idea of disbelief.  Atheism is even less exciting than Islam.

Which leads me to wonder if P&TGK would still fail if it was made today; the pendulum has perhaps swung so far in the other direction that the target audience of today could feel it quaint (the ending excepted).  Or maybe it's just my misplaced grumpiness about "kids today."

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

The archivist in me always fears that movies like this will expire and vanish as technology changes, because I definitely don't see this one getting any kind of major re-release.  And unlike A New Leaf, nobody's really going to be in a hurry to preserve this one.

The good news is that Youtube has come to the rescue once again, so you can watch the whole thing (for now at least) for free.  Or, if that link goes down, then you can buy the DVD without shelling out $70+ for a "Collector's" edition.

If you're under the age of 20 and you're not interested in magic, skepticism, or old comedies, then I still suggest that you check this out just for the time capsule effect.  You'll be amazed at how different the world looked.  Remember when airports gave you more freedom to move?  Of course you don't.  Watch the movie, kid.