Harry (David Mitchell) and Karl (Robert Webb) have been performing magic together since they were kids. As grown-ups they developed a successful stage act but then their careers were cut short by a tragic accident involving a malfunctioning guillotine and their assistant's head. To add to the scandal, the assistant was Harry's wife and just prior to her decapitation, Harry caught Karl giving her - what else? - head.
Karl has started over in a new partnership with Otto, a self-consciously hip David Blaine clone (Darren Boyd), while poor, guilt-ridden Harry has quit show business altogether. At least that is until, jobless and broke, he sees a poster for a televised magic competition to be held in Jersey. Harry puts his misgivings aside and enters it, enlisting the help of his friend Linda (Jessica Stevenson), a keen if inexperienced assistant. To win though, he will have to face not only the magic community, to whom he's a pariah, but also his former stage partner.
Opening in between a bad spring and a lazy, sequel-driven summer, Magicians is a timely reminder that movie-going can be about happy surprises as well as disappointments and that British comedies can be funny. This is a modestly-intentioned yet very pleasing night out at the pictures - well made, well performed and well written by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who also wrote Mitchell and Webb's sitcom Peep Show. Their script does a good job of balancing an ample supply of laughs with a decent plot. The climax is satisfying and even suspenseful.
I've never seen Peep Show so I only know the two stars from their Apple adverts, the ones that try to convince you that Macs are more fun than PCs because you can put movies and photos on them. Mitchell and Webb may not be much use as computer salesmen but as movie stars they're funny and thoroughly likeable. Mitchell, the one who reminds me of a Tory MP, gets the plum role, however Webb, the one who reminds me of a children's TV presenter, is not short of good material. Their roles here fit their personas quite nicely.
They're ably supported by a good cast of British comedians. Mitchell plays many of his scenes with the very funny Jessica Stevenson (her dance routine is a highlight), while Darren Boyd is terrific as Webb's slightly scary new magic partner. Peter Capaldi and Rosie Fellner also have their moments, he as the competition's organiser and she as a credulous magic groupie. For me though, the star of the show is Steve Edge, who's hilarious as a foul-mouthed magician you would definitely not want to hire for your child's birthday party.
I think what I liked most about Magicians is that it's a British comedy that's not only funny but proudly British. The humour is British humour, rooted in irony, misunderstandings, social embarrassment and a generous helping of old-fashioned bawdiness. It's aimed squarely at a local audience looking for a good laugh on a Friday night. Yes, for once we've made one of these films without an eye on the international market. There's no American co-star and none of the jokes involve someone saying, "Bloody buggering bollocks!" in front of a quaint village pub.