Thursday, 28 June 2012

On Carter Beats The Devil And The Five Year Engagement

Paul bought me this book for Fathers' Day (to be precise he bought me an Amazon voucher and sent me a list of recommendations to download). He's a lover of all things American from the NFL to the great American novel, but for me it was something refreshing. I haven't read a great deal of American fiction; it was different; it was a pleasant surprise.

It's a very long book and, as Fathers' Day was only just over a week ago, it's a credit to Glen David Gold that he got me turning the pages fast enough to have finished already. Opening with a spectacular magic show "Carter Beats The Devil" in which Carter The Great and "The Devil" perform a series of outrageous illusions, each one more mind blowing than the next before ending in a magnificent finale involving audience member President Harding coming to a theatrical end in Grand Guignol style, the novel does nothing by halves.

Many of the characters in the book are real; Carter The Great was a famous illusionist, Houdini makes a brief appearance and President Harding was visiting San Francisco at the time that the story begins. As I am not particularly familiar with any of the real characters I simply read it as fiction. After reading the book I checked out Harding and Carter and I think it's fair to say that fiction is the best way to describe it - there's plenty of hocus pocus.

After the opening extravaganza we have several story strands involving secret agents, rival magicians, Carter's childhood and his career and love life and Gold plays tricks with the reader as we try to second guess what is real and what is an illusion.Some of the illusions appear far fetched but the author explains in his notes that all of them were performed (or attempted) during the magical music hall heydays that preceded the movies and television. The same feeling of implausibility applies to the plot but I urge you to suspend your cynicism as you would if attending a performance by Derren Brown or David Blaine and simply settle down to be entertained.

Its all quite brilliantly done - well written with plenty of humour and it comes together in a wonderful, breathless and exciting finale. And that's where I felt that the novel should have ended as my only minor gripe was in the lengthy epilogue in which the author ties up a large number of loose ends. I felt that this was unnecessary and could well have been left to the reader's imagination.

I may be a bit old fashioned but my choice of the perfect romantic comedy would be something like "Love Actually" "Four Weddings And A Funeral" or perhaps Ricky Gervais' much underrated "Cemetery Junction". Each has a slight edge to it but is generally pretty "nice" in a soppy warm and yes "romantic" way. So when I read good reviews of "The Five Year Engagement" I thought that perhaps this would be on those lines. But in the same way that I found the great American novel a bit different I found the great American romcom a long way from the cosiness of its British counterparts.

That's not to say that it isn't an entertaining film. Jason Segel as Tom does a good "nice guy" in very much the same way that he did in the recent Muppet movie and Emily Blunt is the perfect foil as his English fiancee Violet. Together with Alison Brie as her sister Susie, Blunt performs one of the funniest scenes in a long while as they row using the voices of Sesame St characters to avoid upsetting Susie's children. But Tom's best friend Alex who reminded me of a young Jack Black, adds a layer of crudity that lowered the tone of the film for me with an endless fixation on genital related jokes that were not just confined to his character - they permeate the film ( we even have Tom's pensioner mother discussing her vaginal reconstruction surgery at breakfast and Tom worrying about the effect of snow on the size of his penis) - hardly Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn stuff. 

When the credits rolled and Jud Apatow's name came up, the penny dropped. He's been responsible for a fair number of funny films but they're all a bit crude and although I'm no prude, I prefer my crudity separate to my romance. So if you want a film with some laughs and a bit of romance give it a try but if you want the emphasis on the romance, stick with Richard Curtis.


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