Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The last couple of years have seen Mitchell and Webb move from humble beginnings (a radio sketch show and a post-pub Channel 4 sitcom) to bestride the world like two permanently bickering colossi. Four series of Peep Show, That Mitchell And Webb Look, voiceovers, panel game appearances – and of course, those irritating Apple adverts – have earned the straight-laced one and the would-be trendy one a place in the pantheon of great British double acts.

Given that all the other landmarks on the road from cult discovery to mainstream ubiquity have been visited, a film no doubt seemed the logical next step. But Magicians is a disappointing misfire, which dilutes or downplays everything that they do best – Peep Show’s spiralling absurdity and black farce; TMWL’s occasional moments of surreal genius – and plonks them in a tepid Britcom that could have been done by anybody from Cannon and Ball to Flanagan and Allen (without the onscreen decapitations and knob jokes, of course).

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It’s all the more surprising since it’s the Peep Show writing duo of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong who get the main screenwriting credit. But tellingly, there are quite a few other names up there too (including O’Connor, a former Young Magician of the Year, making his directorial debut) and the result is a wildly uneven tone and several scenes that seem to have come from another movie altogether.

When a montage of hair disasters from the leading men’s younger days is one of the funniest things in the film you know you’re in trouble. This forms part of a visual prologue tracing Harry (Mitchell) and Karl’s (Webb) route to stardom. But at the zenith of their popularity Harry discovers Karl in flagrante (and in a props box) with his wife. That night the guillotine climax to the show goes horribly wrong - leaving Harry a widower, the act without an assistant and Karl convinced the whole thing was no accident.

Four years later Harry is a supermarket cutlery demonstrator, constantly being dismissed for performing gruesome illusions with a Sabatier, and Karl has reinvented himself as ‘The Mind Monger’, desperately trying to peddle a sub-Derren Brown clairvoyance act around the TV companies. But the roar of the greasepaint proves irresistible and when the annual Magic Table Shield - a prestigious prestidigitation contest for stage magicians - comes around they set aside their differences and attempt a reconciliation.

This soon dissolves into acrimony again as the accusations fly, and the two set out to win the Shield on their own. Harry resurrects the guillotine trick with the help of besotted supermarket co-worker Linda (Jessica Stevenson) as his new assistant. Meanwhile Karl works on a fake medium routine, but his new girlfriend, sympathetic TV gofer Dani (Andrea Riseborough) thinks he’s genuine and asks him to contact her dead father ...

Naturally it all climaxes when Harry and Karl face off in the last round. Life lessons are learned, everything ends happily and there’s a fair smattering of good one-liners and comic situations along the way. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Stevenson gives another great ‘regular gal’ performance, managing to be ballsy and nice at the same time; Riseborough more than matches her for comic timing; Peter Capaldi (smarmy master of ceremonies) and Darren Boyd (Karl’s inept agent, secretly in love with his client) are as excellent as ever.

And yet... this is one of those films you keep hoping will step up a gear while slowly realising it won’t. Given the talent involved that’s a real surprise. Perhaps it’s fundamentally a case of miscasting – neither Mitchell or Webb’s characters seem like the kind of people who’d want to be showbiz folk in the first place. Or a reluctance to go for the jugular - O’ Connor obviously loves the tricks of the trade and its slightly old-fashioned air, but that means a ripe opportunity to satirise the lower circles of light entertainment hell is passed up.

It’s unlikely to derail the duo’s career – Morecambe and Wise never made a good film and it harmed their reputation not one iota – but if they consider a venture into celluloid again they should try something a bit more dark and strange. Magicians is just too good-natured and keen to please everybody. Unfortunately, in trying to do so, it ends up being not enough for anybody. It also makes two of the best comic actor/performers Britain’s produced in years seem – well, not that funny. And, as the over-lubricated snooker commentators from TMWL would no doubt say, that’s a bad miss.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2007
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Magicians packshot
Magic duo Harry (Mitchell) and Karl (Webb) part company after an unfortunate accident, but a national magic contest tempts them to reunite.
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