By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “The closer you look, the less you see.” That’s how the Now You See Me lead character played by Jesse Eisenberg promotes the magic act he’s part of.
It’s also an unintentional but astute review of his movie.
Now You See Me wants to work like magic, but doesn’t.
It wants to offer fun in a way not unlike the way a magician’s live act trafficks in don’t believe-your-eyes divertissement. But the leap of faith it asks for is just too much, especially in this age of anything’s-possible special effects.
Now You See Me is a heist thriller in which a group of prestidigitators — a high-tech illusionist troupe — commits seemingly impossible feats of crime while performing live.
The magician (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist (Woody Harrelson), escape artist (Isla Fisher), and pickpocket (Dave Franco) comprise “The Four Horsemen,” a team of talented and enigmatic illusionists/magicians playing to sold-out audiences in Las Vegas who pull off elaborate and daring bank heists so they can steal profits from corrupt business leaders like their own promoter, an insurance magnate (Michael Caine), and return it, Robin Hood-style, to more deserving members of their audience.
All without leaving the stage. Hmmm…
Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol detective (Melanie Laurent) are after the criminal tricksters, trying to discern not only how they are doing what they’re doing but why, and hoping to figure it all out before the Four Horseman raise the stakes and pull off a coup that has global financial consequences.
As for Caine’s perturbed and significantly less rich banker, he requests that a retired illusionist (Morgan Freeman), a debunker of magicians’ tricks who marvels at and admires the culprits’ audacity and skill, help with the investigation.
Director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk, The Transporter, Unleashed) works from a script by Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt, and Ed Solomon. Yep, nearly as many screenwriters as illusionists on this project. Perhaps that’s why the film invests so much more energy in displaying and dazzling us with the illusions rather than diverting us by developing the characters.
The script-by-committee approach may also explain why there are gaps and inconsistencies in the plot that beg for embellishment, and why our suspension of disbelief –- critical here –- doesn’t last as the film becomes more and more literally incredible.
Like his characters, director Leterrier uses misdirection to help keep his secrets, diverting us from anticipating the narrative’s built-in twists and turns by whipping the camera around dizzyingly and keeping the editing pace brisk.
But the thrill of in-person magic never transfers to the screen. We’re just not awed by any of it.
In 2006, we were treated to two fine thrillers about stage magicians, The Prestige and The Illusionist. Both managed to preserve the impact of live performance.
And this year The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, an entertaining comedy about illusionists, also managed that trick, as does the current documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
But Now You See Me lacks the wherewithal to achieve that effect, and the film remains instead a cat-and-mouse game in which we’re never quite sure whom we’re rooting for.
So we’ll create the illusion of 2 stars out of 4 for this resistible things-are-never-what-they-seem caper thriller that falls far short of The Prestige and The Illusionist.
With those two films you believed. With Now You See Me, now you don’t.