Penn and Teller Get Killed is an odd look into the minds of the master magicians

“Don’t pout! I’ve got a goddamn knife in my stomach!”

I love Penn and Teller. They are incredibly talented, witty and brilliant entertainers. That their socioeconomic and political views align almost 100% with mine makes me appreciate them all the more. I was lucky enough to finally see them in person early this year, in Las Vegas, and they “killed”. They are a huge part of Vegas now, an institution that fills the house at the Rio every night they perform. They have become one of the most successful acts in the history of magic.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In the late 1980s they were perennial guests on Late Night with David Letterman, executing more and more elaborate tricks with each appearance. It was during this time, as their star was rising, that they came up with the idea for a movie. A movie starring themselves, playing themselves. A movie with a title that was so very very… Penn and Teller.

“Penn and Teller Get Killed.”

They wrote the script, convinced a studio to pay for it, and made the film. Some trick, huh?

Penn and Teller Get Killed came out on my birthday: September 22nd, 1989.

And it bombed.

Deservedly so? I think not.

Penn and Teller Get Killed is a dark sarcastic look into the twisted minds of the two creative guys over the title. It’s surreal, ludicrous, and funny. Oh, and it’s also directed by Arthur Penn. Yes, THAT Arthur Penn… the guy who made Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man (No relation Penn Jillette, though). It was the last film he ever directed.

One of the many joys of the movie is how Penn and Teller basically plays themselves as semi-sociopathic assholes who continuously play pranks on each other. Viewers hoping for sympathetic leads should look elsewhere. As per the movie’s plot, it’s fairly straightforward. After Penn casually tells America during a talk show he’d love it if someone was trying to kill him, to make his life more interesting… well, things get interesting.

Penn and Teller do a fairly good job playing themselves, though Penn will not win many acting lessons (and I’m struck by how much he looks and sounds a lot like a young… err, me). Teller, though, is amazing. He does speak, but only at the end of the film, and so his performance throughout the film is all physical and expressive. Teller does great work here, and the script (and Penn’s direction) give him plenty to do in the film.

As with many movies in this Neglected Cinema series, it’s NOT for everyone. It may not even be for casual fans of Penn and Teller, because it’s wildly uneven and also very very dark… especially the ending. Yes, Penn and Teller get killed… along with several other people. But if you appreciate dark comedy, the ending alone is reason enough for you to check out Penn and Teller get Killed.

(P.S. Look for a cameo of one of my heroes James Randi as an assistant early in the film, as well as Jon Cryer and Tom Sizemore in “blink and you’ll miss them” scenes.)

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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