The Escape Artist(Paramount Home Entertainment, 10.25.2005)
In movies about magic men, con artists, and crack thieves, it's crucial that the actors' actions have credibility. In Frank Oz's The Score, Robert De Niro famously hired technical consultant Richard Di Sabatino to ensure that the opening safecracking scene rang true after Oz treated it with kid gloves. In this regard, 1982's The Escape Artist had the ultimate ace up its sleeve: master magician and technical advisor Ricky Jay.
The Escape Artist concerns Danny Masters, an orphaned pre-teen boy haunted by the death of his escape artist father but blessed with all his gifts. He runs away from his grandmother's house to join his aunt and uncle's vaudeville show, but ends up embroiled in a corrupt Mayor's machinations when he lifts a wallet filled with hot money from the Mayor's crazy son.
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios and directed by celebrated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural, The Right Stuff), the film has a timeless quality. As with Jim Sheridan's In America, the pic's not a period piece, but Deschanel and production designer Dean Tavoularis mix modern inventions with Danny's half-century old suit and "outskirts of Cleveland" locations to evoke the Great Depression as much as the period in which it was made (the 1980s).
It's thus unsurprising that the film plays a bit like a cross between Steven Soderbergh's underrated King of the Hill and Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon as Danny scrapes by with his wits. Paper Moon paired Ryan O'Neal with daughter Tatum and here we have his son Griffin immersing himself in the lead role in an expressive performance on par with his sis's Oscar winning turn.
Deschanel wisely had O'Neal train with Jay months before the shoot and his decision paid off in spades as cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables) is able to shoot him picking locks and performing card tricks like "oil and water" in extended, unbroken shots. Meanwhile, Jay makes sure that water torture cell escapes and vaudeville scrims are staged with acute accuracy. Regrettably, the script by Melissa Mathison (E.T.), based on the book by David Wagoner, is less focused. The pic is highlighted by several marvelous moments, but even Danny's infrequent voice-over narration (added in post-production) fails to provide the necessary narrative connective tissue.
On the other hand, Georges Delerue's (Jules and Jim, Platoon) recurring music box theme is chameleon-like, adapting to and underscoring the flick's shifts from melancholy to wonder. Equally shifty is Raul Julia (One From the Heart) as the mayor's mad son as he deftly displays the ability to shift on a dime from menacing to charming and back again in the same scene.
The film is presented in a picturesque 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. A magnificent commentary track has the self-effacing Deschanel, Jay, and unit production manager Barrie Osborne (The Lord of the Rings) sharing wall-to-wall commentary on magic, the business, and all the artistic decisions made on the film. -- Colin Miller