Monday, June 03, 2013

Film Review - NOW YOU SEE ME

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”
 - Christian Bale, The Prestige.

In his captivating, noir-tinged 2006 dueling illusionists tale, Christopher Nolan touched upon an essential truth about both the art of magic and cinema that’s beautifully expressed in the above quote. Essentially, that film argued that, though audiences yearn to be surprised and astonished, learning the methods behind the manipulation only leaves them feeling unsatisfied. Further, the skills and technique – no matter how clever - are ultimately meaningless if the act isn’t up to snuff.

Such is the case with Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier’s lively-but-disappointing magic-themed caper thriller, which brings boundless energy and Hollywood flash-and-dazzle to a fairly unspectacular show. You certainly can’t blame the gimmick – a quartet of illusionists pulling off impossible crimes while being pursued by the law – because it’s a damn neat hook. No, the problem here is that, for all of the convoluted cinematic sleight-of-hand hijinx, we’re never transported anywhere particularly new or awesome. And when the curtain finally falls, and all cards are revealed, we’re left a little deflated, asking ourselves “is that all?” Yes… Yes it is, folks.

At the very least, Now You See Me does start off strongly, with its team of talented tricksters – Jesse Eisenberg’s arrogant big timer, Woody Harrelson’s blackmailing mentalist, Isla Fisher’s up-and-coming escape artist and Dave Franco’s scrappy street magician – assembled for mysterious reasons and tasked with committing incredible feats of remarkable showmanship. Blowing up into a hot headlining act almost overnight, the newly dubbed Four Horsemen brashly grab the world’s attention after they inexplicably rob a Parisian bank as part of their MGM Grand performance in Las Vegas. This audacious exploit sends the FBI into action, who put tough-talking agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his French Interpol liaison Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) on the case. Aided by notorious illusion-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the partners quickly find themselves running in circles, lost in a web of disorienting misdirection and mind-boggling endeavors.

Any twist-oriented picture demands a tightly written screenplay, otherwise the needlessly overcomplicated plot strands pile up like a rush hour car wreck. The narrative spine of Now You See Me, penned by Ed Solomon (Men In Black), Boaz Yakin (Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time) and first-timer Edward Ricourt, is something of a mess, robbing interesting personalities of dimension and meandering when it should be laser-focused. Worse, it attempts to explain away its many logical gaps, utterly unrealistic (CG-aided) stage illusions and character deficiencies by waving its hand over the viewer’s eyes and declaring that nothing has to make sense because magic is involved. Which is just plain lazy.

And, yet, for all of Now You See Me’s stumblings, it’s hard not to admire the crackling, playful pulse generated by helmer Leterrier. Having proven himself capable of crafting stylish, fun B-movies (The Incredible Hulk, The Transporter and Unleashed speak to his strengths, 2010’s Clash of the Titans most certainly does not), the director’s fast-paced Ocean’s Eleven-like vibe is the film’s best weapon. This is shaggy material, but he does everything he can to jolt it to life. The second half of the picture gradually defeats him, however he still manages to go down swinging.

Leterrier has great collaborators in his attention-grabbing cast. Our avatar down this rabbit hole, Ruffalo, does cynical affability better than almost anyone, and his pithy worldliness is nicely contrasted against Laurent’s cheerful childlike sense of wonder. Freeman is a wily treat and it’s always a blast to see Michael Caine, as the criminals’ financial backer, in greedy bastard mode. The Four Horsemen – as unfortunately underdeveloped as they are – are intriguing creations, and enjoyable to watch bounce off one another. Eisenberg remixes his Mark Zuckerberg performance with an added layer of celebrity egomania to potent effect, and Harrelson delivers another of his lovable rascal turns. Fisher and Franco have less to do, although each is given an amusing moment or two (Franco’s trick-infused tussle with Ruffalo is a highlight). All that said, the group does fall short at playing convincing stage performers, lacking the storytelling brilliance and charisma exemplified by authentic superstars such as David Copperfield, Criss Angel or Penn & Teller. They behave more like hopped-up cheerleaders.

Intermittently engaging, and not without the odd burst of charm, the movie comes oh-so-close to working that its inability to do so chafes that much more. Given the concept and cast, this could have been a glossy, cool crowd-pleaser. Now You See Me, at the end of the day, is merely an empty, pretty diversion, vanishing from the recesses of the mind faster than one can even exclaim “Presto!”

2.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

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