People think magic’s a way of transforming reality — but in the end, you find that all that you’ve really changed is yourself. Which probably explains why every magician I’ve ever met’s a self-absorbed arsehole. Still, first rule of magic: perception is reality. You gotta look the part.
– John Constantine (as written by Andy Diggle)
In the audience of a magic show, I usually find myself in a particular group: those that know the vague outlines of how the illusion was pulled off, but get lost in the minutiae of actualizing it themselves. I know there were multiple coins, or a confederate in the audience, or a mirror used, but I can’t quite map out when the switch was made or how that card got there. When it comes to understanding how to craft a unique and entertaining story populated with characters that resemble humans, Joe Tyler Gold, the writer, star, producer, and co-director (alongside Tammy Caplan) of Desperate Acts of Magic, is in this group as well. He understands the broad strokes of being a person and has an impression of what a story looks like; he just can’t fit all the pieces together to pull it off.
Joe Tyler Gold stars as Jason, a bland IT worker with a penchant for stage magic. After getting fired from his day job, Jason pursues his dream of becoming a working magician. Aided by his successful magician friend Steve (Jonathan Levit), Jason’s lethargic rise to the middle brings him into the orbit of Stacy Dietz (Valerie Dillman), a once promising magician who has burned bridges, has become a grifter, and finds herself bumping against magic’s glass ceiling. Stacy and Jason are both contestants at an annual magic contest held at the Magish Inn, where they hope to break through (into what isn’t really explained) and where, eventually, sparks fizzle between them.
Have you ever seen a bored magician robotically go through his patter just to collect a paycheck? He hits all the marks, tells his banal jokes with no energy, and produces the right cards before getting off the stage and back into a lifetime of regret and self-doubt. That’s Desperate Acts of Magic: a thoroughly bland film that fails to engage the audience on most every level. The stakes are so low that they are virtually non-existent. Which would be fine if there were interesting characters to sit with while they go about their middling tasks. Unfortunately, the actors don’t do much to breathe life into underwritten characters who need some emotional growth before they can even become two-dimensional.
Particularly heinous are the attempts at wading into gender politics. Much is made about the fact that women are never seen as magicians, instead relegated to the assistant role. While that has the potential to add weight to an otherwise charmless plot, it is quickly undercut by the inclusion of Ellen (Sascha Alexander), a vapid, needy woman who jumps into bed with whomever shows her the slightest bit of attention, before becoming a clingy caricature that alternately shrieks and pouts. Ellen is one of only two female characters, not counting Caplan’s turn as a woman who hires Jason to perform magic and spends the entire time harping at him, which in turn undermines any attempts to take the gender commentary seriously.
If you’re interested in closeup magic or stage magic, there is lots on display. None of it is really discussed or used to further anything approaching a theme, but it’s there. And despite the terrible writing filled with awkward sexual come-ons and false tough-girl bravado, Dillman does make Stacy somewhat interesting by suggesting depth as she reels from her failures — just like a real person! But then it all gets buried under the half-assed manic pixie dreamgirl quirks that the script demands.
Magic is a potent metaphor for so many things — art, love, life — but this fount of wonder and poetic inspiration is rendered mundane and insufferably dull in Desperate Acts of Magic. Instead of taking a nuanced look at an intriguing subculture or telling an engaging story with a magical backdrop, Gold and Caplan haven’t created a film; they’ve merely created an illusion of what a film is. Desperate Acts of Magic is all smoke and mirrors.