By Jacob Mertens.
Cinema can be seen as an act of illusion. Scenes that filmed separately become a cohesive whole, real footage blends seamlessly with CG, and a story moves at the behest of a surreptitious screenwriter. Naturally, Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me finds an appropriate medium for its sleek magic-based heist. The film opens on Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas, who tells his audience, and by proxy the audience in the theater, to watch closely because the closer they watch the easier it will be to fool them. As the film evolves into its heist premise, and the audience works to unravel the mystery behind the film’s intricate plot, this reminder remains relevant. However, instead of cleverly duping all but the brightest viewers, Now You See Me takes to its message of misdirection far too literally. The film twists and turns its way into a corner, and its efforts to keep the audience clueless robs its revelations of any narrative momentum. If one can forgive its final act however, Now You See Me does display a superficial joy as it spins its wheels, unconcerned with the oncoming trainwreck lying further down the tracks.
The film opens in standard heist fashion, introducing each key crew member. An overly theatrical magician by trade, J. Daniel Atlas seems to assume a leadership role for the group, while Eisenburg continues to turn talking fast and acting arrogant into a legitimate star persona (a magic trick in its own right). He is followed by Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), a former assistant of his who left Atlas him to start her own act; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a mentalist conman specializing in hypnosis; and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a slight of hand pick pocket and lock-pick extraordinaire. This dubious group has been gathered by unseen forces to pull off the ultimate heist, and before viewers can question why the film skips ahead a year with the plan already in motion.
The gathered magicians, who dramatically call themselves “The Four Horsemen,” begin their elaborate heist in Las Vegas by robbing a bank in Paris at the end of a sold-out show. To the surprise of the audience, the illusion concludes with over three million Euros showering down from the rafters. When three million Euros disappear from the same French bank mentioned in the act, seemingly at the same moment, the Horsemen draw attention from both FBI and Interpol. Once this happens, the film shifts its focus to FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), who chase the magicians, predictably remaining “one step behind” throughout. Of course, the film does jump back to the Horsemen from time to time, but the scenes offer little motivation for the group’s actions, and the dialogue is reduced to playful and shallow banter. And why does the film not focus more on these parlor trick ruffians? Because they still do not know who is behind their planned heist, and continue to execute their borrowed plans amidst a real danger of jail time, simply for the want of attention.
Learning this fact more than halfway through the film, viewers might begin to suspect that these illusion loving thieves are not only much worse at their jobs than suggested, but more importantly are barely characters at all. Instead, Eisenburg and company perform as charming character tropes that barely scratch the surface of genuine humanity, and the less time viewers spend with them the less time they have to find the “trick” out. On the other hand, watching agents Rhodes and Dray offers a terribly polarizing experience. Both actors have little to nothing to work with, but while Laurent excels at creating a character from nothing, exuding an authenticity that feels wasted here, Ruffalo walks through the film looking vaguely confused and belligerent. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also play characters in the film, and their importance to the plot barely justifies naming them in a review. Suffice it to say they lurk throughout, giving individual scenes practiced gravitas and further confusing Now You See Me‘s all important final twist.
As for the ending, little can be said about it without ruining the film (though not ruining it any more than the actual ending does). What I will say is that Now You See Me builds to an obvious reveal, and the writers must have known it. So, instead of rewriting the film in a less obvious way, they opt to throw the audience a head scratching curveball. Nevermind the fact that nothing in the previous hundred odd minutes leads to this moment, and that it renders the film a smoke and mirrors curiosity that fades quickly from memory. No, the writers do not care, they just want to make something fun that does not require a lot of thought. If viewers go to the film with similar expectations, they might find Now You See Me a meager success. For everyone else, the illusion will hold as much interest as watching a magician put a rabbit into a hat, only to pull out a gopher. Sure, you might not expect it, but if that is all there is to the trick you should ask for a refund.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.