Penn and Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour (DVD)

That Teller guys needs to shut the heck up.

Penn and Teller first made their fame as magicians by taking traditional magic acts such as card tricks and putting their own darkly comic and sometimes bloody spins on them. But in recent years, the duo grew more interested in the magic behind the magic. Not only have they dared to reveal some of the secrets behind their own tricks, but they’ve also made a name for themselves as debunkers, exploring the fraudulence of so-called supernatural phenomenon.

In this three-part series, the verbose Penn and the silent Teller head overseas to find the origins of the oldest magic tricks in the world, as well as look at how magicians live their daily lives in other cultures. The results are eye-opening, but not often pretty.

In China, in the middle of winter, Penn and Teller explore a performing arts school where magic is taught, followed by a below-zero trip to Acrobatic World, a gigantic yet deserted tourist attraction featuring traditional Chinese magic. After that, it’s off to Egypt, where evidence of the classic “cups and balls” trick is found on a wall of pyramid hieroglyphics. Then, get ready for a bloody, gruesome trek through the slums of India, where Penn and Teller hope to find someone, anyone, who can perform the mythic Indian rope trick.

It must take a very specific personality type to want to become a professional magician. Sure, Penn and Teller have a sweet gig, playing before sold out shows in Vegas while occasionally hosting their own TV specials or series. In the countries visited in each of these three 50-minute episodes, however, magicians are the poorest of the poor, living in conditions that would be thought inhumane in North America. Several of these older magicians are considered “legendary” by historians and magic scholars. In their home cities, though, these “legends” are at the bottom end of poverty. We see them performing simple tricks on street corners and in cafés, all while hoping the authorities don’t catch them in the act.

And yet, they’re still out there every day. The enjoyment of performing magic is so strong that these tricksters continually head out into the streets to ply their trade with only their audience’s spare change in return. When Penn and Teller visit the magicians in their cramped apartments or derelict shacks, we discover entire families of magicians with everyone from grandmothers to first graders pulling off slight-of-hand tricks like pros. With nothing else to hold onto, these families rely on the art of magic to keep themselves hopeful and together.

Then there’s China’s Acrobatic World, the country’s tribute to its magic and acrobatics, which is in the middle of a frozen wasteland, completely deserted. Imagine how creepy it would be to walk around Disney World if it was just you and the employees. While Penn and Teller bemoan the lack of respect magic gets in these foreign lands, they are also respectful to the men and women who get out on stage, even if it’s in front of no one, to display their amazing skills.

This series features the usual staples of magic, including card tricks, the spinning rings, and the cup and balls. It also features magic’s more gruesome side, such as the young man in a Cairo café who upstages Penn and Teller by swallowing glass and taking huge bites out of a brick. In India, street performers act out father-son dramas in which the father mutilates then heals his son. These bloody sidewalk spectacles often show the child with his chest sliced open or with a knife driven through his neck. It all comes across as very sinister, playing on the public’s fears and superstitions, and even Penn and Teller walk away not sure what to think.

Just as they explore cultural differences, Penn and Teller’s journeys are also about history. They’re out to learn the true origins of the world’s oldest magic tricks. In Egypt, they perform their own version of the famous cups and balls inside a millennia-old crypt containing the trick’s oldest known record. Much of their time in India is spent in search of the mysterious rope trick, often believed to be no more than a myth. History buffs will likely enjoy these sequences, as they reveal elements of the world’s past not normally covered in basic cable documentaries.

Sounds all very serious, doesn’t it? Some of it is, but this is still Penn and Teller, and their slightly anarchic brand of comedy is in full force. Penn often takes advantage of language barriers by tossing off one-liners that would surely insult his hosts, if only they could understand him. Episodes are narrated by using footage of the pair relaxing in their hotel room at night, reflecting on that day’s adventures. It’s in moments like this that Penn’s spontaneous wit shines. I’m fully aware that not everyone digs these two. Some people find Penn an obnoxious loudmouth, and others prefer card tricks that don’t involve someone getting stabbed in the eye. Their humor has almost always worked for me, though. If you’re not already familiar with these guys and their style, know that they’re an acquired taste.

So I’m sitting there on my recliner, happily watching Penn and Teller explore magic in malaria-inducing environments. I enjoy the frozen trip to China, and I’m right there with them during their explorations of the crowded streets of Cairo. But then, in the middle of the Egypt episode, it happens.

Teller speaks.

Sure, maybe he was tired of being the sidekick. It could be argued that this is a “behind the scenes” look at the guys. Perhaps he’s spoken on camera before and I didn’t know about it until now. Still, it was completely jarring. After years of enjoying Teller communicating through a sly look or a mischievous smile, to have him talking like a normal guy, well, it kind of ruined the experience.

There’s illusion and then there’s disillusion. Here we have an entire DVD devoted to Penn and Teller exploring the roots of magic, but by having Teller speak on camera, they’ve ruined their own magic; one more potent than the slight of hand required to pull a three of hearts out of nowhere. This magic is their unique style and personality, and this is what draws in the crowds. It’s a magic that’s far more powerful than any trick, no matter how amazing that trick might be. Sure, Penn and Teller enjoy pulling back the curtain and letting the audience in on the joke, but when Teller spoke, the curtain got pulled back way too far.

For a cable series captured on video, the widescreen image here is great, with few to no defects. One scene in India, recorded in the desert at sunset, looks just as posh as any Hollywood blockbuster. The 2.0 audio is clean and clear, but it will hardly give your system much of a workout. There are no commentaries, but the written production notes are so detailed, they almost make up for it. The additional scenes are interesting to see, but were wisely cut from the final product for being too long. For newcomers, a Penn and Teller bio is also included.

Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour is both fun and informative, but I wonder how much replay value it has. For the curious, a rental is recommended before a purchase.

The Verdict

Not guilty, but only if Teller promises to keep his mouth shut next time.

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