Somewhere inside Magicians, Mitchell & Webb’s big screen debut, is a great 10-minute sketch. The intention seems to be The Prestige — only with more laughs. The outcome is The Prestige-lite — with virtually the same amount of laughs. It’s not that Magicians is bad per se. It’s just that the off-kilter world that comes across so well in Peep Show and the sketch style that’s so spot-on in That Mitchell & Webb Look — probably my favourite TV show of the last year — flounder on the big screen. If the plot was a little more involved, then they might have got away with it but this has about three jokes repeated ad infinitum with diminishing returns.
As in The Prestige, the origins of the friction between the two main characters, Mitchell’s Harry and Webb’s Karl, revolves around another woman: in this instance, Carol, Harry’s wife and the assistant in the duo’s thriving magic act. Then two incidents bring the whole thing crashing down: Karl’s bunk-up with Carol and seven safety devices failing simultaneously to result in Carol’s on-stage decapitation in the big guillotine finale. It’s the end of Carol and the end of their careers. Four years on, and both are struggling. Karl’s trying to find TV work with the help of manager Otto (Smack The Pony’s Darren Boyd) while Harry’s so persona non grata that nobody will touch him with somebody else’s bargepole. But then a break: The Magic Table Shield is taking place in Jersey and there’s a £20K prize. If they get the act back together, they should be shoe-ins for the title. And that’s what they’d do if only they could actually agree on what direction the act should take. Instead, old rivalries are awakened and they feel compelled to compete head-to-head.
So two magicians, a disastrous past, engaging-if-useless assistants (including Jessica Stevenson, still desperately treading water until she gets a call from Simon Pegg), a chance to take the mickey out of cheesy conjuring acts… It’s a perfect Mitchell & Webb scenario. It’s just that it’s a perfect Mitchell & Webb scenario stretched way beyond breaking point. There are a few laughs, but they come mostly from the peripheral players, particularly Peter Capaldi’s cynical host and organiser and, to a lesser extent, Steve Edge (a Peep Show regular) as a crude, fellow magician. Belly laughs are few and far between though and, while you might watch this with a wry smile, the end result falls disappointingly flat. A long sketch or a running gag? Yes. A 90-minute feature? In your dreams.