Penn & Teller Get Killed is a litmus test for practical jokers. Only those who find humor in needless anguish are likely to be entertained by this low-concept failure, which is essentially a dramatization of the brilliant comedy-magic team’s 1987 how-to video, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends.
Built on hoaxers’ quicksand — not unlike David Mamet’s equally maddening House of Games — Penn and Teller’s shaggy-dog story pursues a single what-if idea. This clunky vehicle does contain a few clever bits and one genuine belly laugh, but its shaky premise, half-baked script, and unmodulated acting bind the resourceful duo into a cinematic predicament from which they and their careers just barely escape.
Penn Jillette (the garrulous tall one) launches the plot by musing on national TV how exciting it would be if someone were trying to kill him. The line is just a set up for Teller (the silent short one) to slit his partner’s throat on camera, but the comment’s repercussions don’t end at that. While the two stars, abetted by manager Carlotta (the delightful Caitlin Clarke), engage in a can-you-top-this practical joke joust — sabotaging an airport metal detector, disrupting a casino, faking a kidnapping — it becomes increasingly apparent that some nut in television land has taken Penn’s remark in deadly earnest.
Director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) lamely plays the shell game with reality and illusion, revealing nested layers of deceit as he dares the audience to believe what it sees. Is someone really stalking Penn or is it just another charade?
Elaborate set pieces that allow the pair to showcase stage routines impede the story; a lengthy fantasy in black and white almost buries the movie. But the final indignity is the belabored postscript, a suicide joke that attempts to squeeze a final drop of irony from this lemon.