“The Most Amazing Two Hours in Television History,” says a CBS press release for David Copperfield: 15 Years of Magic (CBS), and I’m tempted to concur. After all, what TV show has ever offered both a man walking through the Great Wall of China and supermodel Claudia Schiffer as a reporter wearing the tiniest black dress in the history of journalism?
I await Copperfield’s annual television displays of grand-scale magic and blown-dry narcissism with awestruck glee, and so this special compendium of Copperfield’s greatest hits-remember when he made the Statue of Liberty disappear? Remember when he turned a motorcycle into two women?-is pure gold. Over the past decade, we’ve watched Copperfield grow from a damp-eyed nerd / into a meticulously coiffed magi-hunk whose merest wink elicits screams from the inordinate number of attractive young women in his studio audiences. Always shot in heroic poses, Copperfield has middlebrow hip down cold-he thinks it’s cutting-edge to do a trick while playing Peter Gabriel music in the background-and his real-life romance with Schiffer has turned him into a tabloid pinup. Here, Schiffer gives 15 Years of Magic its slinky narrative spine, portraying a writer who asks Copperfield questions that set up the clips.
The thing is, the guy’s tricks are really good-I mean, how the heck do you make the Statue of Liberty disappear? For all his chic veneer, Copperfield is a happily old-fashioned throwback, the sort of unironic trickster we haven’t seen much of since the heyday of that enjoyable gasbag Harry Blackstone Jr. These days, magic, like everything else, seems to require a coating of cool to make it acceptable, and thus we get Penn and Teller, who specialize in demystifying the art, as well as Ricky Jay, who has attracted a fervent, ever- expanding cult with his deadpan, richly self-conscious card tricks. Copperfield, by contrast, is such a softy that he caps his special with a montage of the magic we’ve just seen, set to Jimmy Durante singing the chestnut ”Young at Heart.”
It’s when he’s trying to wring irony from his act that Copperfield is least appealing and ends up seeming merely coy. At one point, he shows us some of his earliest publicity shots and tries to poke fun at himself before we do: ”I wore big collars, shiny jackets, and a bad haircut.” It’s as if he doesn’t realize that he still sports pretty goofy clothes and a ridiculously stylized ‘do.
On the other hand, his best achievement is the way he has managed to blow up the scale of traditional magic stunts to suit the TV screen and an audience that is increasingly savvy about special effects. When he walks through the Great Wall, for instance, Copperfield takes care to show us that the camera is shooting this illusion in one long, gliding take-there’s no way the trick is being accomplished by editing.
It’s this combination of genuine skill and egomaniacal showmanship that makes Copperfield fascinating. Even if you don’t like hocus-pocus, I suggest tuning in just to see him sit close to Schiffer and murmur his real reason for becoming a master illusionist: ” There’s a sensual side to magic that hadn’t really been touched.” Ooooh, David!