Penn & Teller perform on TV to roaring applause, and afterward, Penn jokes that it might be fun to have a murderous stalker. Teller obliges by slashing his throat; joke over. After the show, bizarre events convince Penn that someone is taking his challenge seriously (little things like someone shooting at him.) Penn goes into hiding, as soon as he can take a break from debunking a psychic surgeon and waging a prank war with Teller. But, as the stalker moves in for the final kill, Teller pulls a gun and shoots him, actually killing Penn, who (we learn) staged the entire plot as a prank. Teller kills himself to complete the title, and the scene is so tragic that the next person to enter joins him. And then the next person. And the next person. And the next…
Penn & Teller Get Killed was an unwanted child, tossed around between studios like a lit stick of dynamite, and terminally under-released. The script, written by the duo, is such an odd creature that it’s a minor (atheist) miracle it found financing as a studio picture. The result is a movie by and about two minor-celebrity magicians, directed by a man who hadn’t had a hit in two decades, and with a pitch black ending that defies franchising. (“You can imagine the sequel thing is kind of a bitch,” quips Penn). Fans could only see P&TGK on worn VHS copies until last year, when Warner Brothers finally added the film to its Archive collection, a vanity press for unloved movies. If you see the film, soak it up, because you’ll never see anything like it again.
Penn & Teller Get Killed is lock-step with the rest of the magician duo’s career, primarily devoted to blurring the lines between the real world and the trick, while puncturing clichés and superstitions. P&TGK was designed to sit film conventions on their ear: the ending is in the title, the main characters can actually die, etc. The film is an attempt to deconstruct film.
If you’ve read this far and don’t want more details on the full ending, stop now, because the best scene, the source of the title, and probably the film’s entire reason to exist is the hilariously bleak finale. Possibly influenced by Monty Python’s “funniest joke in the world,” the film ends with Teller accidentally killing Penn before turning the gun on himself. That’s a fairly down ending as these things go, but the duo flips the script by drawing an exhaustive and escalating number of characters into the room for a variety of reasons, all of whom are either so distraught or shocked that they off themselves as well, which leads to the next group, and so on until the credits and, presumably, the end of the world. (This clip ends early; trust me, it goes on.)
The clear theme running throughout Penn & Teller Get Killed is “don’t fall for bullshit,” a message that’s defined the bulk of the duo’s career. Throughout their partnership, Penn & Teller have left the ruins of hack magicians in their wake by exposing their tricks and pretensions; they’ve debunked pseudoscience, political conspiracies, and faith (Penn often signs autographs with “There is no God.”); they’ve created video games that skewer the form, including one game, Desert Bus, apparently on this earth only to occupy the gullible until they starve to death or otherwise go away. Penn & Teller are also professed libertarians, a philosophy that, although not without its faults, has about as little tolerance for bullshit as any in American politics (which explains why the party can’t get any traction in the mainstream. Americans like their politicians shoveling with both hands.)
As a medium to bring Penn & Teller’s attitude to the screen—an attitude less “kick-ass” than “kick-in-the-ass”—the film should fit right in. It doesn’t. In fact, it fails on almost every conceivable level, and while some of that can be blamed on Arthur Penn, most of it falls squarely on Penn & Teller themselves.
We can, I believe, pencil magicians onto the list of professions that should not be actors, right under rap stars, pop singers, and politicians. Sure, it’s all performance, but a film set is in a different galaxy from the stage. There’s no audience to work with, no energy to build. There is only waiting, action, and more waiting. The stage Penn & Teller are masters at working an audience, but Penn and Teller look lost on the screen, drifting between barely-connected episodes like buoys. There’s no life in the movie, no real world for the pair to inhabit. There’s only the tricks and a planet full of rubes. This setup works for the finale—it’s hard to feel bad for a world where everyone sucks—but it works against the movie everywhere else, like when the pair plays hero to prevent an ailing mark from blowing his money on a faith healer.
Psychic surgery was a major thing in the late 80s, having experienced a flash of gawking popularity from shaky news reports and that wouldn’t survive the first 10 Fark comments today. The technique—which involves the surgeon ripping “tumors” from the body without pain or incisions—was quickly sussed by the magician community as a sleight-of-hand trick, and few were as outspoken as Penn & Teller when calling it out. They take great pains in P&TGK to debunk the procedure, tying their anti-mumbo-jumbo rants directly into the plot. It’s a weird vendetta. Maybe this particular trick irked them because its purpose was to grift, not entertain. Maybe they just thought it was a weak trick. Maybe their crusade grew from conscience, as trusting in a faith healer to cure your cancer can cost you a whole lot more than money.
The subplot sums up another message in P&TG: ignorance is death. Penn & Teller have spent their careers tweaking the gullible, but when they fall for their own pranks, it leads to their doom. There’s a bit of schadenfreude to seeing them taste their own medicine. As the movie’s tagline says: What more do you want?
I want a better movie, or at least one that lives up to the script’s ambition. Arthur Penn’s late years contained a lot of paycheck jobs that, as even he admits, didn’t hold much interest for him. I don’t know if that’s the case for P&TGK, but it seems clear that his style didn’t fit the material. Penn once said that directing was looking for “controlled accidents.” He liked to let his actors loose to experiment. That may work with Brando or Beatty, but it shouldn’t have been this movie. It shouldn’t have been these actors. This script can’t support all that liberty.
I can’t say Penn & Teller Get Killed is a bait and switch, but that’s as far as its merits go. It’s an anti-movie, but not in the way that its stars might have hoped. There’s more to being subversive than bucking cliché. The script and its stars were full of good intentions, but even a well-meaning bull can still leave a pile of. . . missed opportunities.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)