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'Penn and Teller Get Killed' : (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 18, 1989
"Penn & Teller Get Killed" is a practical joke of a movie about a pair of pathological practical jokers. And if by some cruel twist of fate you actually pay money to see it, you'll realize immediately who the butt of it is.
The premise is this: While Penn Jillette and Teller (who play themselves) are on a talk show, Penn lets slip that he thinks it would be really neat if someone were trying to kill him. "It would give your life focus," he says. "You wouldn't sweat the small stuff."
Next thing you know, someone is trying to kill him. First he's abducted and threatened with a scalpel, next he's shot in the arm by a sniper, then stabbed in the belly, then, finally, shot in the belly. Initially, the culprit seems to be none other than Teller himself. For years the two men have indulged in a masochistic competition of practical jokes, each sicker and more elaborate than the last, and the attacks appear simply to mark a macabre escalation in their well-established routine.
But when Teller spots a third man (David Patrick Kelly) made up to look exactly like Penn, a female detective is assigned to the case, one who loves the Velvet Underground, the Three Stooges and diet cola -- Penn's ideal girl.
Naturally, since Penn and Teller are sleight-of-hand artists, the cop isn't really a cop and the killer isn't really a killer. The sleight of hand isn't really sleight of hand, either. It's movie magic, which is to say no magic at all. Penn and Teller's career in magic is built on shock and outrage; they're famous for dropping hundreds of cockroaches on David Letterman's desk, and for routines like one in the film, in which there's a foul-up in a trick and Teller appears to have been impaled by 10 or so huge power drills. But whereas in person there's a kind of punk effrontery to their style, and a flagrant disregard for the standard contract between performers and their audience, on film they seem tame, almost old hat -- there's no kick to it, and without the kick, they have no act.
The film was produced and directed by Arthur Penn, and all one can say about that is, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." This is shapeless, incoherent work -- the kind of thing you might expect to see produced by a first-timer making a cheap entry into the profession. What it amounts to is little more than a prolonged advertisement for the magicians' stage act -- prolonged and painful.
Penn & Teller Get Killed is rated R
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