Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Now You See Me Movie Review

First published at Mostly Movies on 11 June 2013.

It opens with an impressive magic trick – one that is played on you, the movie audience – as Jesse Eisenberg, playing street magician Daniel Atlas plies a card trick for both his fictional street audience and the camera. I will admit to having been duped by the card trick even though I knew it was really a trick of digital effects more than anything else. That, unfortunately, is the method behind most of the magic in Now You See Me, a movie about magicians pulling off one of the greatest tricks in history that fails to enthrall as magic and just barely holds up even as movie magic.

I love a good magic trick or performance. And the heist film is one of my favorite sub-genres so the combination of the two here appealed to me, but ultimately failed to capture me. It doesn’t really adhere to the heist film conventions that tend to draw me in: the team of experts each with some unique skill; the planning stage; the hitch in the plan; the clever ruses; the big job; the great escape. Now You See Me is more concerned with the allure of magic and the theoretical existence of real magic – not just tricks. That can, of course, make for a good movie. But the level of audience manipulation on the part of the filmmakers (director Louis Leterrier from a screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt) is mind-bogglingly insulting. There are tricks performed on stage that I know are absolutely not possible. We are supposed to watch them and think that these are great magicians performing stunning Vegas-style tricks, but the reality is that they are tricks only made possible by the use of CGI. This is not a movie about magic – it’s a razzle-dazzle effects extravaganza not much different from the latest superhero movie.

The opening introduces us to the four principal magicians working separately in small venues (the street, mostly). In addition to Atlas there’s McKinney (Woody Harrelson) working in mentalism and successfully hypnotizing people. Beware, the screenplay expects you to buy into hypnosis and behavior manipulation as if they are real things. Dave Franco plays street hustler and pickpocket Jack Wilder and Isla Fisher is Atlas’s former assistant Henley, now striking out on her own. Someone mysteriously delivers to each of them a card with an address, a date, and a time on it. Of course they all show up. Who wouldn’t? They all get pulled together to stage a series of magic shows that will change the course of magic history, or something.

After their opening gambit in a Vegas show has them apparently rob a Paris bank using a teleport machine (they don’t really, although given the absurdity of so much else in the film I don’t understand why we weren’t also asked to believe in instantaneous teleportation), FBI investigator Danny Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is forced into taking the case and (even more reluctantly) a partner from Interpol played, in a bizarre casting decision, by Melanie Laurent. They enlist the assistance of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man who has made it his life’s work to expose magicians’ tricks and reveal how they’re done. He does this for reasons too complicated to get into. The last major role is filled by Michael Caine, as the Four Horsemen’s (as they dub themselves) benefactor, a wealthy insurance magnate whose motivations are suspect. And by that I mean I can’t really understand why he’s involved with them.

A successful magician need not have only sharp sleight of hand skills and a manipulative demeanor. He must also be the most self-confident guy in the room (I think Atlas’s assertion that you need to be the smartest guy in the room is inapt). Harrelson has it and delivers with an “aw, shucks” humility. I still have trouble believing Eisenberg as a guy who can go toe-to-toe with an FBI agent. He brings the same qualities to the table he displayed in The Social Network where the damaged and desperate boy yearning for acceptance was expertly masked by an “I don’t give a shit” exterior. He gives almost an identical performance here, but it doesn’t play.

I kept waiting to be amazed. Then I waited. And I waited some more. Leterrier never delivers the big moment. Maybe that’s because the movie is so chock full of them with revelations and false leads and magic tricks that just can’t be done in the physical universe I occupy. The characters tell a story of a legendary magician who performed an amazing card trick in Central Park, the end of which has him cutting down a tree and pulling the card from inside its trunk. It turns out to have been placed there twenty years earlier, the budding magician knowing that he would one day perform a great trick. That’s a long time to wait for an audience reaction. It’s meant to explain away the great mystery of who is actually pulling all the strings in the movie. Maybe twenty years from now someone in Hollywood will be able to explain this mess of a movie to me. I’m not likely to care very much by then.

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