Monday, June 17, 2013

Now You See Me

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.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

Behind all the magic, the film was trying to portray its main characters as Robin Hood's of the modern age, stealing from the rich and giving to "to the poor" or rather "the people", they were all about teaching the "bad guys" the lesson...but it came off in an overtly simplistic matter for me. I felt the movie was made so that a 12 year could understand it, and that just turned me right off.

Still, I did like that magic trick that the girl pulled off with the piranhas, pretty theatrical stuff.
And that magic trick the pulled with the card number that I SAW was awesome....I was that real magic, whats going on here?? ha ha..

But as a whole, i couldnt even bring myself to write a review for it. It felt vapid to me!

Neil Fulwood said...

I really wished they'd explored the characters of the magicians more. The bank robbery set piece and the public revelation of Michael Caine's character had that nice Robin Hood vibe, but there were far too many other scenes where they were just goofing around and, quite often, not being particularly likeable. Eisenberg's character was far too arrogant and Harrelson borderline sleazy. I liked Isla Fisher a lot, and I'd agree that the piranha stunt was effective. But the movie never really explored the dynamic between them or what they really stand to gain by becoming part of The Eye, though the writers have left themselves some potentially interesting possibilities if they ever make a sequel. But for me the film gets bogged down because it can't decide whether it wants to be a razzle dazzle spectacular about the magicians or an action movie about the cop trying to bring them in. In the end, the whole film was an exercise in misdirection but the payoff didn't quite seem to justify it.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Agree, as you said in your review, I was underwhelmed with the ending, it should have been something bigger. I did like the possibilities presented by them joining the eye. It gives you that feeling that maybe there's some real magic involved, maybe in the sequel which I'm sure will come, this one is actually making money. Got a feeling that a second film will take things further, possibly introducing real magic to the equation which would be pretty cool.