The Story: A big showbiz magic act called the Four Horseman (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) draws the attention of a detective (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) when their elaborate tricks begin to involve seemingly impossible feats of robbery. A magician debunker (Morgan Freeman) is brought in to help piece together the crimes, but who knows who’s really in on it at the end? The screenwriter, that’s who.
I’d love to see a good movie about practical magic. No, not the 1998 witches comedy with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, which featured no practical magic at all, and also was terrible, but rather a film based on, in honor of, and more or less loyal to the real practice of magic. Culture at large takes this for granted, but magicians are still an actual thing. It seems they’ve been shafted in pop culture because the craft is decidely old-fashioned now that we have both a surplus of technological tools to shortcut our way to amazement and an unfairly sky-high threshhold for theatricality at this point that, at least in movie terms, leaves us jaded and inattentive to anything less than massive space battles and entire teams worth of fantasy superheroes performing 10 simultaneous miraculous stunts in the same shot. Watching a coin disappear from your hand just can’t compete…but maybe it should, because convincing you that a coin disappeared into thin air is an illusion that can be performed for the naked eye by another human being standing right in front of you, and there’s a purity to that. No screens, no computer generated forgery, no other audio-visual enhancements necessary (in most cases). Yet the art of defying reality, of suggesting the supernatural, of fooling your senses by tangible means for entertainment, has become an extremely niche market by the 21st century. Did cinema kill the stage magic star? Not exactly, but it did steal a lot of his mojo. Conceptually, I can appreciate that a film like “Now You See Me” – as well as other recent magic-related flicks (Burt Wonderstone, both The Illusionists, aspects of The Prestige and Oz the Great and Powerful even though both used actual fantasy to varying extents) – at least adheres to the philosophy that its magicians aren’t literal Harry Potter wizards but rather trained illusionists. Grounding the tricks that way invites the viewer’s mind to contemplate and solve the impressive on-screen magic, rather than merely consuming and dismissing yet another batch of fake movie imagery (not that visual effects and other forms of cinematic artifice don’t require their own mastery, but illusions attach an interactive versimilitude to that). So thanks, Now You See Me, for not taking the low road of fiction by claiming that the Four Horsemen have unlimited powers. Wait, shortly after being brought in for questioning, one of the magicians manages to hide a key for handcuffs inside an unopened soda can? As in factory sealed? And all while he was sitting right in front of them? Sorry, Now You See Me, but we’re going to have to disqualify you. Just because the trick is minor in scope doesn’t mean it still isn’t well beyond the range of plausibility.
And so it goes with this movie. For the most part it has fun peeking behind the curtain to show the mechanics of its elaborate magic tricks, but it also sweeps a lot of its schtick under the rug hoping we won’t ask too many questions, when it should really know better that once we’ve been asked, challenged even, to scrutinize every pixel and syllable, no bullshit will be forgiven. The movie’s central edict is “the closer you look, the less you’ll see”, an inadvertently backfiring bitchslap on its own screenplay. Indeed, the less you pay attention to this disingenous, superficial, sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing, motion picture-sized illusion of a hip star-studded twisty comic thriller, the more you’ll enjoy yourself, but who’s really that stupid? With this cast and a premise promising pretzeling plot twists, I was looking forward to something like The Prestige as presented by Ocean’s 11, a breezy summer Rubik’s Cube, clever and suave. Instead we’ve got something like a poor man’s The Sixth Sense as presented by Brett Ratner or Michael Bay, with an M. Night-worthy slap in the face of an offensively brainless surprise ending preceded by almost two hours of needlessly, dizzyingly hyperactive camera work over smug, placeholder dialogue that aspires to only the absolute minimum fascimile of character development and banter required by summer movie law.
Again, the ingredients introduced within the story do have plenty of potential – a quartet of famous magicians who use their skills to commit crimes and balance the scales of justice, so they’re sorta like superheroes (aka cinema’s current mascot extraordinaire); a secret omniscient order of magicians called The Eye; a magic trick so layered and epic that it transpires “on a global scale” (not really – it’s 100% within U.S. Borders – specifically Vegas, New Orelans, and New York – aside from a detour to Paris); mismatched law enforcement agents bonding during the investigation…okay, that side of the plot is pedestrian and contrived, case closed, but at least we have scruffy, naturalistic Mark Ruffalo and captivating, seductively French-accented Melanie Laurent to make the most of limp, misleading police procedural bonding. One problem is that the movie never slows down to take a believable interest in any of its topics – it hardly ever lets up on its pacing enough to feel like anything more than a (very, very) extended commercial for itself, which counts against our involvement in and savoring of the would-be dazzling scope of the plot, the would-be nonchalant bravado of the Horsemen’s sorcery, and the would-be, at-the-heart-of-it-all chemistry between Ruffalo and Laurent. And honestly, even if it did, even if it progressed at a most meticulously Kubrickian crawl, it would all be nullified by that last-minute re-definition of the entire scenario, so it was effectively doomed by the time the story graduated from the conceptual stages. But you don’t know that while watching it for the first time – you keep waiting for the big picture tease to justify the flurry of profoundly glib activity. Well, it won’t. As in most cases of a film constructed around a twist ending, the set-up is far more intriguing than the payoff. That’s barely a subjective statement, either – I can’t imagine anyone but the most gullible, indifferent audience member embracing the outcome of this movie. It bears no scrutiny whatsoever; as stretchy as it was to accept that Bruce Willis didn’t realize his wife never even acknowledged his presence at dinner in The Sixth Sense, at least that movie tried to lay in some pipe work for retroactive inspection. The reveal in Now You See Me basically depends on your immediate short-term memory being so blurry that you’ll have no choice but to succumb to each successive moment’s whim. If the ending claimed that the whole movie had been an animated musical all along, you’d have to go, “it was? Yeah, I guess it probably was, I don’t know.” The only way they could’ve gone more desperately over-the-top is if the twist had been “the movie’s director was behind it all”.
The bitterest flavor of disappointment may be the large-scale squandering of a movie about professional magicians, but nearly as piercing is its non-use of the sterling cast at hand. Though they all participate with expected gusto, best of all Jesse Eisenberg, whose exceptionally cultivated, lip-smacking hubris is for once not contrasted by equal amounts of deprecating inadequacy written in to the character (the only other film to date to bother justifying his petulant arrogance has been The Social Network, so, good company), and who indeed seems like inspired casting for the cocksure showmanship that would best serve an actual magician, nobody comes out with a memorable performance. There just isn’t enough material for that. Morgan Freeman has the best shot at it by playing a bad guy of sorts, which is rare territory for him (I’m fine striking both Hard Rain and Dreamcatcher from the record), but his villainy is underwritten, so that arc concludes unsatisfyingly without any opportunity to see the actor shift gears. Ruffalo spends most of the movie being made a fool of as everyone outwits him, and his eventual trajectory is even less convincing and more rushed than Freeman’s. Laurent mostly just plays Ruffalo’s happier foil. Woody Harrelson is supposed to be rakishly charming according to the paltry handful of lines he’s given throughout the entire movie, but again, like everything else, this attribute feels like a substitute for a real character that the movie forgot to fill out later. Everyone else – Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Common, Elias Koteas who like Keenan Wynn in The Goonies has the curious dishonor of not even appearing in the movie, just his face used in a newspaper clipping (deleted scenes?) – hasn’t a single describable dimension. You can barely even count what they did as acting. Sorry, everybody. Stuffing a project with stars just for fun can be great (the recent fourth season of Arrested Development largely pulls this off, as it always did before), but I think that works better as a bonus than a selling point.
I’ll credit the movie for a bit of its settings – it’s welcoming to see some full-on shots of downtown New Orleans – but I really can’t come up with any other reason to bother watching it. The cast is neither flattered nor challenged, the tricks cut corners half the time (one involving a decoy car begs the question, wouldn’t they have noticed a 2nd identical car suddenly appearing in front of them?), the ostensible, inherently appealing protagonists are in fact nothing but MacGuffins, the cinematography swoops around so restlessly that you might think Louis Leterrier is auditioning to be Gaspar Noe’s 2nd unit director (still a step up from Luc Besson acolyte), and the twist is a maddening, nonsenical cheat that doesn’t misdirect you like a talented magician but rather lies to your face like a, well, a cheater. I know that the following metaphor is a potshot, but let’s say that using it anyway is in homage to the movie’s own lazy work ethic: Now You See Me aims to be a magic trick of a movie, to bluff you with jazz hands into buying and cheering on its cool attitude, underdog spirit, and cunning shell-game narrative despite being totally empty-handed. But these magicians could use more lessons. And a whole new act.
Final Grade: D+
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