Now You See Me – A Review

And, once again, the promise of magic lures me into a so-so movie.

As you may recall from my review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I have a bit of a soft spot for the performance of prestidigitation. If a movie or television show features illusionists, it peaks my interest. So when I saw the trailer for Now You See Me I was somewhat curious, despite the fact that my track record with pop culture associated with magic is pretty mixed at best. The cast was another strong selling point; if you are able to talk Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, David Franco, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine into appearing in your film, one would hope that there is the material there to back up that star power.

Unfortunately, I think there may have been some sort of mass hypnosis to get this many talented people associated with this project. Now You See Me is a harmless film that might be fun if you can overlook the fact that most of it makes little to no sense. There are some interesting twists and good action sequences, but the film is bogged down by terrible dialogue and a half-baked plot that falls apart under even the smallest scrutiny. Now You See Me has some elements of a good caper movie and starts off with promise, but just can’t sustain that energy throughout the rest of the film.

The general plot of the film is as follows: Four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher and Franco) are brought together by some mystery person for unknown purposes (this all happens before the opening credits). They start performing together as “The Four Horsemen” and during their Las Vegas show they appear to rob a bank in Paris. This captures the attention of the FBI and Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is tasked with figuring out how the foursome could pull off such a caper while seemingly being in another country. Rhodes receives some guidance from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who has made a career of revealing how magicians perform their illusions. Is there really magic at work here or is magic just the smokescreen for something else?

As I stated in my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, the part of caper movies that I find most interesting is the assembling the team component. Now You See Me dispenses with that pretty quickly, but it is not surprising that I was more interested in the early part of the film. Unfortunately, because such a little amount of time is devoted to the team building and it focuses more on the types of magic that they perform (sleight of hand, escape artists, mentalist) that The Four Horsemen are kind of blank slates without much personality or development. Harrelson and Eisenberg flesh their characters out the most, but even they are just vague sketches. There are glimpses at backstory – Eisenberg and Fisher used to work together and there are hints at romance – but not enough to be anything substantial and actually just wind up raising more questions than providing answers. The same can be said for Ruffalo’s FBI Agent – he doesn’t have a lot of personality and we mostly see him just look annoyed and confused as he tries to explain how The Four Horsemen have pulled off their accused crimes. This is part of the larger issue with the movie – it never slows down. Between the camera angles and the action, there aren’t many moments of reflection or any breathing room. That may be by design as reflection on this movie will only highlight the fact that a lot of what you are watching makes absolutely no sense. The movie ended and I wasn’t sure what the point was of the last two hours. I have no idea what motivated most of their actions and I left the theater with the sense that the writers had totally cheated in the vague resolution that they provided. The problem with telling a story about magic is that when you explain what was actually done, you are actually trying to impose a logical structure on something that by its very definition defies logic.

Now, logic and action don’t necessarily go together in movies and for a while the illusions and the twists and turns of the plot are enough to be somewhat satisfying in an empty calorie, junk food sort of way. But because so much of the movie is from the perspective of the FBI, we wind up seeing a lot of the same material twice: once when The Four Horsemen are doing their thing and then a second time when the FBI finally figures out how they did it. It gets a bit repetitive. Watching people that are almost always a step behind is not particularly entertaining, especially when you have no idea who you are rooting for. I’m not sure if I was supposed to hope that The Four Horsemen got away or if I was pulling for Ruffalo and company to put it all together and finally beat them at their own game. I had no stakes in the game.

Now You See Me does have some very exciting action sequences that make parts of the film a fun ride. Franco, in particular, gets some pretty exciting stuff to do (eventually – the first half of the movie he is just kind of there). The illusions in and of themselves are also entertaining. Harrelson is always amusing and hearing Morgan Freeman narrate anything is a pleasure (I think they may have put an unnecessary scene in the movie JUST so he could do a voice over).  I like Ruffalo a lot in general so that good will was carried over to him in this film, though it was mostly unearned. Now You See Me can’t live up to its own expectations and grandeur, but it occasionally has some moments that illustrate why so many people were attracted to this film, at least in theory. It’s the execution where the problems lie and even those moments can’t gloss over the plot holes and emptiness of the film.

Some other thoughts:

  • Ever since Jesse Eisenberg starred in The Social Network he can’t seem to shake that Zuckerberg smugness in my eyes. It is channel appropriately in this movie, but I have a tough time seeing him in other roles without that baggage.
  • Morgan Freeman as a magician is a film I would definitely sign up to see.
  • I saw my first trailer for the second Hunger Games film (Catching Fire) and it has me suitably excited for the film this November.
  • Isla Fisher is everywhere lately – She was in The Great Gatsby, the new Arrested Development episodes and now this film. I’ve seen more of her in the last few months than I’ve seen some friends. She’s Hollywood’s redhead of the moment.
  • Michael Caine really doesn’t have enough to do in this film, but it’s always nice to see him.
  • In the card trick that he does in the beginning of the film, the card that the fan picked was actually the same card that I picked from the deck. That was kind of weird.

Now You See Me is simply a mediocre film that doesn’t use this talented cast to the best of their abilities. It has moments where it is very enjoyable and the enduring interest in resolution for some of the big questions of the film kept me somewhat engaged in the proceedings despite the ludicrousness of the story. It definitely has portions that are visually stimulating and exciting, but those moments are not enough to save this film from its faults. Even Woody Harrelson in a porkpie hat can’t make up for a film that’s story feels like a big cheat in a lot of ways. Now You See Me is better categorized as Now You See Me on cable or on DVD.

Now You See Me opens nationwide today.

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