A scene from "Magic Life." (Handout )
"The Magic Life" is an underdeveloped, though largely engaging documentary profiling a trio of magician hopefuls as they attempt to turn their unique avocation into a profitable career. Producer-director Nelson Cheng shows clear respect for his movie's intriguing topic, but the newbie filmmaker's lack of technical and narrative proficiency makes this an underwhelming first effort.
On the upside, Cheng has chosen his charming lead subjects wisely. They include the ebullient Yang Yang, a 17-year-old from Beijing who visits America to attend magic school; Matthew Noah Falk, a mid-20s L.A. street magician hamstrung by his high apartment rent; and 30-ish New Yorker Michael Friedland, who exits the business world for a shot at performing at Hollywood's Magic Castle.
Unfortunately, the magicians' stories unfold unevenly. Aided by renowned Chinese magician Juliana Chen and Southland illusionist-magic teacher Dale Salwak, Yang travels from L.A. to Las Vegas (where he meets idol Lance Burton) and finally to Tennessee's Smoky Mountains for a gig performing with a Chinese acrobatics show.
Falk's more downbeat trajectory, which culminates in a failed straitjacket escape stunt, plus the sidelining of Friedland's burgeoning success due to sudden fatherhood, ultimately diminish this too-brief film's more magical — and more enjoyable — moments.
"The Magic Life." No MPAA rating; in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo7, North Hollywood.