Four Magicians on the Run Until They Vanish
One of the challenges that Now You See Me, directed by Louis Leterrier, runs up against is that it’s seen on screen. Optical illusions, computer generated imagery, and partial perspectives have become adopted as regular “movie magic”. That’s why seeing the more literal magic from a projector dazzles less than seeing it live. The mediated experience minimizes the marvel of the trick as the audience becomes wary of post-production effects and the potential lack of illusion, even if it really exists.
So when Jesse Eisenberg begins the film showing a woman (and you) a card trick on the street amongst a group of people, the result might surprise you but it quickly becomes suspicious. He plays J. Daniel Atlas, an egotistical sleight-of hand card magician in charge of a group called the “four horsemen.” His accomplices include Merritt McKinley (Woody Harreslon), a devious mentalist with sly hypnotic ability, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) as a highly skilled escape artist, and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) as a con artist thieving magician. They meet together in an old Manhattan tenement after each mysteriously receiving playing cards for an indistinct mission.
A year after assembling we pick them up on a Las Vegas circular stage in front of a large audience where they “teleport” a man to his Parisian bank and steal three million euros that are simultaneously littered over the crowd like confetti. Thus enacts the authorities, which pit officer Dyan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) onto the case with a French Interpol Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), into a three-city chase after the magical crooks. The horsemen’s benefactor played by Michael Caine sponsors their cross-country trips to New Orleans and final New York City act, riding the momentum of their fame for as long as he can.
Leterrier (responsible for the films Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, and Clash of the Titans) hardly elicits any kind of chemistry between his large teams of stars. Morgan Freeman, who plays Thaddeus Bradley trying to debunk the groups’ illusions, reteams with former Batman star Caine, just as Harrelson rekindles his Zombieland duo with Eisenberg. But what’s missing is any sort of authentic camaraderie that a quartet of illusionists might have after spending frequent time with each other. Part of their detraction is each other’s differing levels of smugness- the top prize going to Eisenberg, who brings back his Mark Zuckerbergian sarcastic and haughty rhetoric. Their greatest teamwork comes on stage; most other times their collective excitement feels very individualistic.
The same might be said of Ruffalo and Laurent, refurbishing a buddy cop cliché as they track down their suspects with little success. One is all facts, the other is all faith, but their split personalities don’t promote laughter as much as frustration during the multiple misfires with the F.B.I. Leterrier’s swerving camera adds to the film’s rapid pace- one that never slows down between magical acts, giving us little time to analyze its tricks or crack the case. That’s part of the appeal and also the disappointing side effect of Now You See Me, whose plot and depth suffer from any real engagement with the art itself.
The four horsemen repeatedly tell their audiences to pay extremely close attention to what’s happening in front of them. Of course a movie-going audience really has no choice in the matter and so Leterrier, along with writers Boaz Yakin, Ed Solomon, and Edward Ricourt, take advantage conjuring rabbits, pulling away cloaks, and saving up a giant final revelation. He also spices up the illusionist lifestyle (David Copperfield aided the project) with an absurd car chase and fight sequence whose physicality would be enough to impress Houdini. This is more serious and entertaining than March’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but to say this is a serious movie means that more than just a vanishing caper is occurring.
The fans flock to the third act, and the illusionists at this point have become larger than life rock-stars, ostensibly perceived as modern Robin Hoods in a business world where corporate suits should find their comeuppance in the form of glitzy deception. But just as those heroic thoughts creep in, Mr. Freeman and Ms. Laurent begin explaining how they believe some of their deceptive puzzle pieces fit together. Typically this is when we get an exhaustive step by step of how things actually happened. But like a magician, Leterrier never fully reveals his tricks, which, considering the material, seems right but feels wrong.