Director: Caleb Deschanel
Writer: Melissa Mathison, based and a novel by David Wagoner
Cast: Griffin O'Neal, Raul Julia, Desi Arnez, Teri Garr, M. Emmet Walsh
Box Office: $143,369
Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
The Escape Artist is like a well-executed magic trick: It pulls you in with its oddity and charm, and though you walk away pleased with what you saw, you don't really know exactly what happened. Of course the analogy breaks down when considering that a film thrives on clarity of narrative and purpose. It's not a perfect film, but its flaws are minor when compared to its triumphs.
Griffin O'Neal plays Danny Masters, a young magician who runs away to join a vaudevillian magic act and live in his dead father's image. He pairs up with Stu, the corrupt mayor's son, played by Raul Julia, who also wishes to be his father, made difficult when Danny pranks him and ends up with the mayor's wallet, which is full of dirty money. The rest of the film has them pretending to be friends, while trying to get the best of each other. Some of the plot details are a bit hazy, and after watching the film a few times, I'm still unclear about what the money is or what actually happens with it, but it's more about atmosphere and character, and what remains is an odd coming-of-age story set amongst magicians and crooks, with some great performances by O'Neal and Julia.
The Escape Artist is quiet and subtle. It's part fable, part caper, and all heart, with a dreamlike music box score that brings it all together. And what could have very easily been hokey is actually a joy to watch as a twelve year-old kid outsmarts his enemies with what appears to be simple sleight-of-hand tricks that I've rewound a dozen times and still cannot figure out. O'Neal's performance is understated and he pulls off what are, according to the film's magic consultant, very complicated tricks without blinking an eye, and this was before CGI. It's pretty marvelous at times. But the real thing to watch here is Raul Julia, who pulls off a sort of playground bully, a childish asshole, who is at once kind of dangerous but also kind of amusing. He is first seen barging into a magic shop and being offered a pick-a-card tick by Danny, and after choosing one, rips it in half. It's funny, though in a sadistic way, and Julia keeps that up for the entire film as he tries to use Danny's talents for his own advantage, never realizing that those talents are actually getting the best of him.
Originally to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this was the first film produced by Zoetrope Studios. It was given a tiny release and was instantly forgotten. Flawed, but still wonderful, The Escape Artist has a lot to offer.