Penn & Teller Get Killed
Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
Dir. Arthur Penn
“Commie bastard! I’ll show you distribution of wealth!”
The career of Arthur Penn reads like the perfect snap-shot for every major American film movement of the last 50 years. You’ve got The Miracle Worker, which embodies classic Hollywood acting at its finest; Alice’s Restaurant, which embarked on the late 60s counterculture so popular with Hollywood at the time without actually, ya know, being pandering to the masses; Little Big Man, which helped a dying genre, the Western, reach its revisionist period, helping break down the myths to reach a reflective end; and even Night Moves, which had the gritty 70s crime imprint all over it. Oh, and who could forget one of the most influential American films of all time, the film that arguably ushered in modern film violence, Bonnie and Clyde?
So what in the hell is with his to-date last theatrical release? Penn & Teller Get Killed? I’ve honestly enjoyed the duo for years actually, even enjoyed what I’ve seen of their show Bullshit!, but an entire narrative film devoted to them? To some degree, these fears are more than justified. However, Penn & Teller Get Killed is remarkably funny at its best, and simply overly ambitious at its worst. Make no mistake though; there are some truly inspired comic moments in this film. My personal favorite:
Plot? Ha! Oh ok, let me give it a shot: Penn & Teller go on a nightly talk show, do some visual slight-of-hand with the home audience, promote their upcoming show in Atlantic City, milk their macabre routine some more and finish their interview with a personal challenge from Penn himself; You see, he would really enjoy if someone was impassioned enough to want and try to kill him.
And thus brings us to the inherit purpose of this film: to play off the conventions of not only the magic world, but the conventions of the film medium itself, constantly playing off the audience. The film challenges them to decipher whether what they see is part of a trick knowingly conceived by the characters onto others in the film, or whether the trick is being played on the audience itself. It’s a genuinely clever conceit, the intentions of the film, and one that never lets up. This is not a film that backs down from any of its promises… From beginning to end, it’s essentially an escalating prank war, given an added layer by the form of cinema. Oh yeah, it’s post-modern alright.
Like any good magic show, the film goes to great lengths to top itself, getting more ambitious, and infinitely more convoluted as it unfolds. Any time the film hits a lull (and god are there some in this film), the filmmakers find their way to another absurd set piece, some genuinely hilarious. (A scene involving an alleged psychopath’s home video collage and subsequent reaction is a highlight.)
And I haven’t even gone into the various styles and allusions this film puts on display. That’s probably another article altogether, really. Black and white to color, action movie to screwball comedy, romance to disturbing melodrama… I’ll give em this; the filmmakers really know how to cram material into 90 minutes.
OK, and now I must confess something. I began writing this review as I was watching the film (during a couple of those said lulls)… What I couldn’t do however, was take my eyes off the ending to this film. I’d been desperately searching for Arthur Penn in the ups and downs of this film, and was even planning on really stretching that concept throughout, yet all I needed was this utterly disturbing last chapter. I’m not exaggerating, nor am I going to spoil anything. Yes folks, even in the age of the internet, I’m not going to give this away. Not because there’s some grand meaning or twist that gels the whole thing together. No, this is an ending fit for a legend bowing out. And it certainly couldn’t possibly be more fitting to the renegade tone the two stars have been searching for their entire careers. I never thought a movie by Penn & Teller would have me at a loss for words.
Plus, you get to hear Teller speak.
And instead of showing a terrible trailer to the film, I couldn’t help but tie this in somehow:
From an actual unreleased video game for Sega CD… Gee, I wonder why. More on that here.