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Now You See Me

Somewhere, I dont recall, I read positive things about this film not positive enough to motivate me to see it in the theaters, but enough to catch it on rental. It has an appealing enough cast that I had middling expectations for it. The story opens with four down-on-their-luck magicians: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher), and Jack (Dave Franco). They are summoned to an apartment somewhere in New York with mysterious tarot cards, and the next thing we know they are the world-famous magic team of the Four Horsemen, performing huge, complicated tricks on a Vegas stage, backed by the rich Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). When one of the stunts involves robbing a Paris bank (from the Vegas stage), the FBI gets involved, and agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is sent in to investigate (why the FBI is involved with an overseas heist is not explained). Because it happened in Paris, we also get an unusually young and pretty Interpol agent, Alma (Melanie Laurent) to partner with Rhodes. And, because thats not complicated enough, theres also a magic mythbuster stalking them, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, replete with twin earrings). One of the chief problems with movies that deal with clever protagonists is that the filmmakers feel they have to fool the audience as well (the Oceans movies suffered from this belief, but they did a pretty good job with it, by and large), so we get lots of outrageous twists and turns that keep us guessing; even though we see their tricks, were not really sure how they do it, not until Morgan Freeman comes along to explain everything to us (which South Park rightly parodied is his role in most films). The downside of this is that, for most of the movie, we have no true idea whats going on; theres supposed to be some doubt, sure, but so little of the film is explained until so far after the fact that were asked to fill in too many blanks ourselves, and by the hour mark, we have so little to go on it gets a bit irritating. It doesnt help that the characters are largely blank slates. Daniel is a bit superior and clearly hung up on Henley, whop used to be his assistant. Merritts mental tricks arent that impressive and hes a bit of a stuck-up prick too. Jack gets the role of the guy just dying to be in a group with the others (even though hes the only one who displays any real skill up front), and Henley has no character at all, shes just there to be sexy (which she succeeds at remarkably). But the supporting cast is just as vague; Rhodes spends most of his time looking stupid and being angry, and his partner Alma, much like Henley, is there to give the guys something to look at. Tresslers role makes no sense once its explained, and Bradley well, Freemans clearly slumming here. Theres a great deal of flash and sizzle, and the magic is fun and enjoyable to watch, but the overly convoluted backstory is painful to sit-through and is less believable than the outrageous magic tricks. The movie strenuously tries to have it both ways they commit actual magic acts, but yet they dont and this schizophrenic approach saps both the creativity of the magic (its not real, heres how they did it)

and the suspense (it turns out all you have to do to outwit the FBI is plan really well in advance). After a while I gave up trying to make sense of it; Morgan Freeman was going to explain it all to me anyway, so why bother trying to follow along? Admittedly most of the leads are pleasant enough to spend time with, even if their characters are only sketchily drawn. Eisenberg comes off a little more braggy than usual, but his trademark character insecurity rears its head soon enough, so were comfortable filling in the blanks on him by poaching from his other, better roles. Ditto with Harrelson, who has played the comfortable wisecracker enough so that we dont question him at all in the role. This breaks down a little with Franco, with whom Im unfamiliar, a statement that holds up after seeing him in this role; none of these characters has any dimension at all, and I have no other frames of reference with Franco to shade him into two dimensions. This was less of an issue with Fisher, whom Im not normally enamored of, but who was so distractingly sexy here I didnt care that she had no character. Shallow of me, I know; I prefer eye candy with a good performance (say, Anne Hathaway in the Batman movie), but I can settle for just eye candy. Ruffalo, Freeman and Caine have all been so good so many times Ill give them a pass on their relatively mediocre performances here. Its not an awful film, and its certainly not as bad as Im making it sound. Its just not a very well made or thought-out film, and when youre trying to be clever I think those are important factors. If you can turn your brain off completely, or at least to a large degree, and not worry about the gaping plot holes, theres enough good cheer here that you can coast along and smile benignly at a well-intentioned and certainly slickly made film; it just sort of collapses like a house of cards if you think about it, even a little bit. September 6, 2013