Cineworld held a mystery film screening this evening, whipping up publicity by posting a series of downright oblique clues via Twitter. Messageboards were abuzz with speculation: many thought ‘Pacific Rim’, others plumbed for ‘The Lone Ranger’; when we booked the tickets, my wife was holding out for ‘The Wolverine’ while I had my fingers crossed for ‘The World’s End’. Ultimately, we were both disappointed. But at least it wasn’t two hours of CGI robots twatting aliens and then twatting each other. As we queued – interminably – I put a comment on FB to the effect that if it was ‘Pacific Rim’, I was going home.
We ended up not going home … well, not till the movie was over. We’d already agreed on the Half Hour Rule (if neither of us are digging a film at the half hour, we cut our losses and blow the joint). By minute thirty of ‘Now You See Me’, we were both enjoying it. By the time it was over, though, we had mixed feelings.
‘Now You See Me’ does several things right in very quick succession. It starts with a voiceover warning the audience that the closer they look, they less likely they’ll be to spot the trick. At the same time, a simple card trick plays out. The camera forces a very specific card on the viewer. It’s kind of a flipside to the opening of ‘The Prestige’. Where Christopher Nolan’s film clues you in to the three stages of an illusion, ‘Now You See Me’ deliberately sets out to obfuscate. It’s both a ballsy stroke of legerdemain and a self-defeating act: the longer ‘Now You See Me’ goes on, the more evident it is that director Louis Letterier wants his film to be a ‘Prestige’ for the Jerry Bruckheimer generation. But whereas ‘The Prestige’ has a genuine weighty human drama to anchor its more fanciful elements, ‘Now You See Me’ trades solely in the fanciful.
But let’s skip back to its opening reel. Having pulled a beautifully executed fast one on the audience, Letterier assembles his quartet of prestidigitatorial protagonists with superb economy, dealing out their vignettes like cards: street magician with a tendency to the theatrical J Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist/shakedown artist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), glamorous escapologist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and new kid on the block Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). The narrative flings them together and has them pulled into the scheme of an unknown benefactor so quickly – the title card is a perfectly-timed punchline to the whole sequence – that their ineffably stupid names didn’t even begin to annoy me till a good halfway into the movie.
In equally quick succession, our foursome have been reimagined as a sell-out Vegas act who make headlines (and get themselves arrested) on account of an illusion based around a bank robbery. What pisses off the authorities, and gets Interpol newbie Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) assigned to assisting rumpled sourpuss detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) – this really is That Movie Where Really Talented People Play Really One-Dimension Characters With Really Stupid Names – is the disappearance of a fuckton of Euros from a Parisian bank that tallies exactly with the magic trick.
The rest of the movie – or at least, the 75% of it that conspires to make you take your eye off the ball prior to the big reveal – is essentially Dylan and Alma vs. The Four Horsemen (thus the collective name the illusionists bill themselves as, notwithstanding that one of them is a woman), while vengeful impresario Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) hover in the wings nursing their own agendas.
‘Now You See Me’ is magnificently entertaining for a big chunk of its running time. Less than an hour in, I decided not to bother trying to second guess and just enjoy the ride. I’m glad I took that approach, because the whole improbably contrived plot pays off in a manner that, while not disappointing or in any way a cheat, is a little underwhelming. The essential problem with making a film about magic is that magic is a con. It’s smoke and mirrors; razzle dazzle; misdirection. It’s all surface and when you think about it too much, you dismiss it – rightly – as bullshit. ‘The Prestige’ is only superficially about magic – the real point of the film is the cost of the illusion; what you have to sacrifice to accomplish the seemingly impossible. To a lesser degree, Neil Burger’s ‘The Illusionist’ sets out its box of tricks as a backdrop to a tale of romance. ‘Now You See Me’ is entirely about the illusion, and as such starts to vaporise in a fog of its own insubstantiality the moment the end credits roll.