Smoke and mirrors

Smoke and mirrors

Movie magic is a one-trick pony

By Tim Pompey 06/13/2013

Now You See Me
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco
Rated PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content
1 hr. 55 min.

Now You See Me is really one long magic trick. Clever in its planning, but with a lot of working parts that move at a frenetic pace, it feels like a show you might catch as a TV special, and it should, since magician David Copperfield was brought in to consult.

The real motive here is to do the old shell trick. Spin things around. Keep you guessing. Then, reveal how badly you’ve been fooled. As the film itself suggests, the more closely you look, the less you know.

There’s a strange psychology to magic and illusion — the audience as the victim, the illusionist as the one who’s the smartest guy in the room. Outside of this environment, being flim-flammed would make us angry. But in a dark space with flashing lights and a magician’s smile, we seem to fall under a spell and welcome, even volunteer, for the humiliation.

Perhaps that is exactly what French director Louis Leterrier is hoping for: A film audience equally as gullible and willing to sit through almost two hours of rouse to find out how the trick works.

To be sure, he seems to know what he’s doing, if not in plot, certainly with an abundance of high-speed pursuits and enough crowd noise to give the audience tinnitus. The questions remain for anyone watching: Does the ending justify the story? Does the magic itself provide enough showmanship to make the viewing worth it?

The trick starts from the opening frame and carries through to the very end. Four different types of illusionists receive a mysterious tarot card inviting them to a run-down flat in New York City:  Card shark J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).

Why have they been summoned? We’re not sure exactly, but the film would lead us to believe that corporate tycoon Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is paying them to put on a giant magic show that involves bank robberies.

When their opening act leads to a large heist from a French bank in Paris, the law appears in the person of disheveled and grumpy FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and meticulously beautiful French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). They’re the Oscar and Felix of law enforcement.

And then there’s the appearance by former magician and skeptic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who seems bent on exposing magicians and cops as either phony or inept. Why is he in the movie? Think of him as the explainer, the man who provides the audience with the truth behind the tricks.

There is a point to all this madness, and I do admit it results in a lollapalooza of an ending that you probably won’t see coming. I told you this was meant to be an illusion. Car chases, screaming cops, performing magicians. All this is intended as a diversion to the actual performance and giant revelation at film’s end.

Will you enjoy all this hocus-pocus? Maybe, but frankly I found it grueling to sit through, not just for the showboat illusions or the questionable acting, but all the explanations. There’s so much recap in this film, it feels like one of those HBO or Showtime previews on DVD that I always try to skip.

Does the surprise ending make up for all this film’s folderol? Only in part. Most magic specials on TV are only an hour or so. Now You See Me is longer and much less entertaining. I need more than a magic show to make me appreciate the story. Unfortunately, this film turns out to be a one-trick pony.


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