Magic is one of those areas of entertainment that can either make audiences cheer or wince. A good magic trick can always elicit a solid “wow,” but a commonly held perception of magic is that it’s often corny. As with anything, the difference comes down to skill and presentation. What can truly great magicians do to strike awe into the masses? What’s the trick behind the tricks?
Magicians: Life in the Impossible is a documentary that delves deep into the world of magicians and their craft, chronicling four different subjects over the span of four years to see how they each approach the timeless art of illusion. There’s Jon Armstrong, a self-proclaimed nerd who has conquered the art of the card trick; Brian Gillis, an erstwhile Tonight Show regular who now teaches magic at conferences; Jan Rouven, a German magician quickly rising up the ranks in Las Vegas; and David Minkin, an illusionist developing a television series.
All of these magicians take their work intensely seriously, and one of the best aspects of the film is the way its subjects span the spectrum of their industry. While Rouven and Minkin are rising stars, Armstrong is content to teach rather than occupy a spotlight, and Gillis’ fame is largely behind him, harder times having befallen him during the Great Recession. By showing us magicians on different rungs of the ladder, the film deftly offers a wide-ranging look at the commonalities of the field in a variety of different contexts.
The film is at its most engaging, perhaps not surprisingly, when it trains its cameras on the magic itself. Armstrong’s card tricks, Gillis’ tactic of stealing participants’ watches right off their wrists without detection and, especially, Minkin’s ability to levitate a fork in the air right in front of him are all stunning to witness. You watch these tricks unfold transfixed with wonderment, baffled by how they are being pulled off. These are all very talented men, each intently proficient in astonishing a crowd.
Also intriguing are the few hints we get of how the strings are being pulled, such as a Zapruder-esque examination of a Tonight Show card trick’s sleight-of-hand. Also compelling is the care each magician displays in the cultivation of their bits and the protectiveness they evince in ensuring that their work isn’t plundered by rivals. The film makes clear that magicians are not dissimilar to stand-up comedians in terms of developing and safeguarding their originality.
Magicians: Life in the Impossible falters a bit in the width of its focus. It takes several personal digressions into the lives of each of its subjects. For instance, because of the long duration of the production, we witness not only Armstrong’s wedding, but also his depression after the marriage in question has ended. We also get to see Mirkin deal with his ailing dog as well as Gillis being forced to downsize his living arrangements to reflect a new economic reality. These elements successfully humanize its participants and are each undeniably moving, but they often don’t serve the film’s thesis. They occasionally feel more suited to a protracted reality-television series rather than a documentary film with a specific focus.
Magicians isn’t the most dynamic documentary you’ll ever see, but in its presentation of a world most people probably don’t give a thought to, it is illuminating. It does a solid job of conveying the white-hot passion that burns within those who practice the art form. Put it this way, it doesn’t make your interest disappear.
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