“We’re shitting gold – pure gold!” says Robert Webb. Indeed. Bouncing from Apple ads to a fresh series of slow-burn cult TV hit Peep Show, loser everymen David Mitchell and his cohort Webb are the hottest ticket in Brit comedy. Now comes the big one. Just months after Chris Nolan’s brilliantly constructed conjurer’s trick The Prestige, Peep Show’s “el dude brothers” yank back the curtain on their own movie about a pair of rival illusionists battling for glory. But Nolan isn’t directing. We’re in Jersey. And that smell isn’t gold.
Teed up by a heart-meltingly gawky montage of childhood photos, Mitchell and Webb hug their affectionate Peep Show personas from the off. Straight-laced Harry (Mitchell) and daft Karl (Webb) are a burgeoning illusionist double-act, erecting their stage show with the help of Harry’s wife as the beautiful assistant. Karl, though, has a trick of his own: disappearing inside Harry’s missus on a regular basis. You already know the drill: Harry ‘accidentally’ decapitates his wife during the next guillotine trick and childhood friends become bitter rivals.
So the clichés are already growing like mould on rancid bread by the time Harry and Karl go head to head at a magic competition four years later. Harry has a ballsy new assistant in Jessica Stevenson. Karl is now the psychic “Mind Monger”. Unfortunately, you just read the film’s best gag. Beyond that? Not a lot. Feebly directed by Andrew O’Connor, an exec producer behind Derren Brown – Trick Of The Mind and Peep Show, Magicians has nothing to distract from the fact that its narrative is an empty box.
Tough to blame the el dudes. Self-deprecating, angsty and lovable, Mitchell and Webb effortlessly nail the script’s flashes of trademark dialogue (pre-coital Karl: “It’s a stayer!”). But we do mean flashes. Bafflingly, Peep Show writers Armstrong and Bain have taken the bite and pace out of their comedy, delivering a softcore script that pulls away from the spiky verbal sparring or fist-biting cringes the audience expects. What’s more, Magicians as a movie is utterly disinterested in magic, ignoring the ripe target offered by the tawdry world of silk handkerchiefs and wonky bow ties.
Okay, so we do get the sight of Webb buried up to his neck in sand as his face transforms into Mr Potato Head. But by that point the film caves in to a horribly schmaltzy finish and you’ll be left wishing you’d saved your cash for the next Peep Show DVD.