Monday, October 18, 2010


Arthur Penn: Penn and Teller Get Killed

By Edward Copeland
What a supremely odd way to end a feature film directing career, yet 1989's Penn and Teller Get Killed did turn out to be the last solo feature Arthur Penn directed. An even bigger mystery is why he would agree to direct this film in the first place. I like Penn and Teller, but boy is this a mess.

Penn and Teller, the comic magicians looking much younger in this more than 20-year-old film, have proved themselves to be great performers on stage when they present their act or, more recently in their great Showtime series Penn & Teller Bullshit where they debunk all sorts of things ranging from bottled water to religious scams. Unfortunately, either because Penn and Teller were trying too hard or someone was instructing them to try, acting doesn't exist in their bag of tricks. It seems pretty silly, since they are playing themselves, why someone should feel that much emoting would be necessary in the first place, but they try (mainly Penn, since Teller doesn't speak, though he does toward the end of the film) and the acting attempts prove quite awkward.

The loose plot of Penn and Teller Get Killed concerns an offhand comment Penn makes during a talk show appearance when he says he wishes that someone was out to try to kill him, because it would give his life purpose. Sure enough, eventually attempts will start being made on Penn's life.

Before that happens, the film basically consists of how Penn and Teller likes to pull practical jokes on one another while they travel to their various gigs with faithful assistant Carlotta (Caitlin Clarke), the next big one being at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Some of the bits can be funny, as when Teller keeps tossing casino tokens into the slot machine basket of a man and Penn encourages a fight, making it into some sort of communist plot.

Unfortunately, the laughs are few and far between and it's mind-boggling to see what attracted Arthur Penn to this script. The final shot is nice and funny in a macabre way, but it doesn't justify the rest of the film.

For a director who made as many good and great and groundbreaking films as Penn did, Penn and Teller Get Killed proves to be a real disappointment and a sad way to end a feature film directing career. Due to the weirdness of the U.S. Postal System and my Netflix queue, I haven't seen Target yet, so I'm not prepared to say Penn and Teller Get Killed was the worst film Arthur Penn made, but Target will have to be really bad to top it.

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I always saw this film as an elaborate shell game/con game by Penn & Teller as they are all about revealing a trick only to pull off another one that they don't reveal. I think this applies to the film as well. It's an odd film with flaws to be sure but I still enjoy it.
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