“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” – Christian Bale, The Prestige
In his captivating duelling illusionists tale, Christopher Nolan touched upon an essential truth about magic and cinema that’s beautifully expressed in that quote. Essentially, the film argued that though audiences yearn to be surprised and astonished, discovering the methods behind the manipulation only leaves them unsatisfied. Further, the skills and technique – no matter how clever — are ultimately meaningless if the act isn’t up to snuff.
Such is the case with Now You See Me, a lively-but-disappointing magic-themed caper, which brings boundless energy and flash-and-dazzle to an unspectacular show. You can’t blame the gimmick — a quartet of illusionists pulling off impossible crimes — because it’s a damn neat hook. No, the problem is that, for all of the convoluted sleight-of-hand hijinks, we’re never transported anywhere particularly new or awesome. And when the curtain finally falls and all cards are revealed, we’re left a little deflated, asking ourselves, “is that all?”
At least Now You See Me starts strongly. With its trickster team – Jesse Eisenberg’s arrogant big timer, Woody Harrelson’s blackmailing mentalist, Isla Fisher’s up-and-coming escape artist and Dave Franco’s scrappy street magician – mysteriously assembled and tasked with committing incredible feats of showmanship. Blowing up into a headlining act almost overnight, the newly dubbed Four Horsemen brashly grab the world’s attention by robbing a Parisian bank during a Las Vegas performance. This audacious exploit sends the FBI into action, unleashing tough-talking agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his French Interpol liaison Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). Aided by illusion-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the partners are soon running in circles, lost in a web of misdirection and mind-boggling endeavours.
Any twist-oriented picture demands a tight screenplay, otherwise overcomplicated plot strands pile up like a rush hour car wreck. Now You See Me’s narrative spine is a mess, robbing personalities of dimension and meandering when it should be laser-focused. Worse, it lazily explains away countless logical gaps, unrealistic (CG-aided) stage illusions and character deficiencies by waving its hand over our eyes and declaring nothing has to make sense because it’s magic!
Yet, despite the picture’s stumblings, you have to admire the crackling, playful pulse generated by helmer Louis Leterrier. Having proven himself a capable crafter of stylish B-movies (Incredible Hulk, The Transporter), his fast-paced Ocean’s Eleven-like vibe is the film’s best weapon. This is shaggy material, but he does everything he can to zap it to life.
Leterrier has great collaborators in his attention-grabbing cast. Our avatar down this rabbit hole, Ruffalo, does cynical affability better than anyone, and his pithy worldliness is nicely contrasted against Laurent’s wonder-filled cheerfulness. Freeman’s a wily treat and it’s always a blast to see Michael Caine, as the criminals’ backer, in greedy bastard mode. The Four Horsemen — underdeveloped as they are — are intriguing creations, and enjoyable to watch bounce off each other. Eisenberg remixes his Mark Zuckerberg performance with shades of celebrity egomania. Harrelson delivers another lovable rascal turn. Fisher and Franco have less to do, although each scores an amusing moment or two (Franco’s trick-infused tussle with Ruffalo is a highlight). That said, the foursome aren’t overly convincing stage performers, lacking the storyteller charisma exemplified by superstars like David Copperfield, Criss Angel or Penn & Teller. They’re more like hopped-up cheerleaders.
Intermittently engaging, and not without bursts of charm, the movie comes so close to working that its inability to do so chafes that much more. Given the concept and actors, this could have been a glossy, cool crowd-pleaser. Instead, Now You See Me is an empty, pretty diversion, vanishing from the recesses of the mind faster than you can exclaim “Presto!”
By Cam Smith
Photo provided by © 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC