A Kind of Magic
Warning: This review pulls plot points out of a hat
Framing your movie with the line, “look closely, because the more you look, the less you’ll actually see”, is high risk. Unless your show has layers that belie its end of a pier-ance, that’s a gift to critics and it would take a better one than me to resist referring to it in his opening paragraph.
Now You See Me delivers on that line; it’s an empty box of tricks. The lack of suspense and absence of tangible intrigue anesthetises the thrills. Getting involved, as audiences often do at magic shows, isn’t on the cards – not even the seven of diamonds. Louis Leterrier, showman extraordinaire, who’s perfected the art of skipping his audience across the surface of a story like a flat stone on a pond, has failed in his bid to make this mesmerist thriller mesmerising. The problem? Both the film and its quartet of antiheroes are unbearably self-satisfied, and that cockiness extends to everyone except gormless, credibility-straining federal agent Mark Ruffalo. That is until the third act in which screenwriter Ed Solomon and his collaborator Boaz Yakin, who sounds like street slang rather than a real person, decide they’re a smirk short and induct him into the movie’s club of self-congratulation, thereby eliminating the last sympathetic character from the ensemble.
Like comparable groups of conmen (the cast of the BBC’s smug-out Hustle spring to mind), we’re supposed to root for the Four Horsemen, though technically it’s three and one horsewoman, but they don’t make it easy. Jesse Eisenberg’s card magician is a rampant egomaniac with a haughty, condescending tone of voice, inciting you to pick a card and insert it into his throat. Woody Harrelson, more likable by a nose, is a hypnotist but he can’t plant the suggestion that he’s more than the sum of his quips. Dave Franco’s decorative and Isla Fisher excels as the tits and teeth. The caper flick is built on the idea that there’s a lot at stake for our protagonists; caring about them is a must. In Leterrier’s film the only thing on the line is the quartet’s freedom and since we don’t believe for a nanosecond that the earnest but clueless Ruffalo has any hope of outsmarting the troupe, there’s nothing whatsoever to invest in.
Leterrier, perhaps conscious of this structural flaw in his flick, attempts to ape his heroes and misdirect the audience so they won’t notice how little they care about what’s going on. Morgan Freeman is introduced as a debunking ex-magician with insider knowledge who threatens to demystify the movie. Thanks to him we get some useful explanatory flashbacks and the suggestion the horsemen are fallible. That suggestion never translates into a sense, however, because Freeman’s only ever useful after the fact and acknowledges each illusion is part of a sequence, the climax of which he confesses to know nothing about.
Michael Caine, as a rich sponsor, is chucked into the mix is an antagonist for Freeman, but here, as in much of the movie, things fall flat. Caine is barely animate in a minor role and no one, bar an energetic and suitably exasperated Ruffalo, registers as fully human. Yes, the closer you look at them, the less there is.
Instead, in what constitutes over confidence on behalf of both filmmakers and cast alike, Now You See Me puts all its energies into rug pulling and misdirection, at the expense of everything else. Characters have long, patience testing conversations in which they tell their enemies how clueless they are. Meanwhile the plot turns on a series of consequence-free setpiece illusions. A final twist, designed to retrospectively invest the enterprise with the meaning and emotional underpinning absent throughout, fails on both counts, being too outlandish and improbable to seem anything other than ill-conceived. You’re left with a movie that has all the depth of a Vegas magic act, though take heart, it’s one fifth of the price.