By Ralph Novak
October 09, 1989 12:00 PM

Penn Jillette, Teller

Anyone in the mood to be the victim of a very elaborate practical joke should enjoy this movie written by and starring the ingenious postmodern magicians Penn and Teller, whose delightful mean-spirited-ness often makes it seem as if they bought their souls from the devil.

The joke is a shaggy-dog thing, but it takes the whole movie to set it up. The resulting payoff, or nonpayoff—something that the viewer is led to expect will happen doesn’t happen—may not be universally perceived as worth the wait.

There is some characteristic foolishness en route. Penn (the stars play themselves) appears on a TV show and, as a gag, says he wishes someone were trying to kill him so there would be more excitement in his life. This sets off a sequence of events that includes a “psychic surgery” demonstration, a few tricks, a Three Stooges tribute, a crazed fan and miscellaneous gunplay.

How funny this seems will depend on how much your taste has acquired Penn and Teller. Their sarcasm can get lame. When Penn sets off a gate alarm and an airport security guard asks him, “Do you have a metal plate in your head?” he snarls, “No. Do you want one in yours?” The straight lines aren’t always scintillating either. “A lot of people believe in it,” someone says of psychic surgery, to which Penn smugly replies, “The best reason I know to question something.”

More offensive is the fact that Penn and Teller shill relentlessly, frequently mentioning an Atlantic City casino and sticking soda cans of a particular brand in the audience’s face. The film could have been called Penn & Teller Drink Diet Cola. This kind of sneaky commercialism is the sort of thing the boys rightly lampoon when other people do it.

The film is best when it’s most eccentric, such as in a scene where Teller starts a riot by throwing money into the payoff bin of a casino slot machine while Penn asks the man playing the machine, “Are you going to let him throw money at you?”

The movie adds another unpredictable, only faintly glowing credit to the eclectic career of director Arthur Penn—Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker, Little Big Man. Penn’s son Matthew has a small role as an Atlantic City cop, and the cast also includes Caitlin (Crocodile Dundee) Clarke, who plays two unrelated roles, as a cop and as the magicians’ manager. (The dual identity allows Clarke to seduce Penn away from herself.) To look on the bright side, this is a buddy film with no car chases, where one buddy has no bad lines and where the idea of a sequel seems out of the question. And it is, no question, the best anti—psychic-surgery film of the year. (R)