6/6/2013 - Magicians mix sleight of hand and Robin Hood-like theft in Now You See Me, a movie that asks you to pick a card, any card, from the deck.
Remember it, now fold it up and put it in your pocket and watch it magically appear in the third act! Or not! Because maybe the movie has lost interest in your card! Illusion!
J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, still stuck in The Social Network gear) is a magician wowing crowds and improbably getting ladies to come back to his apartment for some hot magician action. Henley Reeves (Ilsa Fisher) is his former lovely assistant who now has her own act including some impressive escape-artist work. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist who uses guessing and hypnosis to separate an amazed crowd from its money (in the opening scene, he correctly guesses that a husband has had an affair and then extorts $200 out of him to hypnotize the wife into not remembering the revelation). Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a straight-up thief, using amateur-seeming magic as a cover for some elegant pickpocket work. Invited to a mysterious meeting, the four are shown the blueprints to a grand magic show.
A year later, and calling themselves The Four Horsemen, they are playing Las Vegas and for their final trick, they tell the crowd, they are going to rob a bank. Presto, change-o — a volunteer wears a “transporter helmet,” steps into a booth and is zoomed to his bank in Paris, where he helps to send millions of euros to the audience back in Vegas. Cheers all around — except from the FBI when they learn that the bank has indeed lost its money.
Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is determined to prove that the quartet stole the money but, as Daniel points out, without evidence the only way they can proclaim that the magicians stole the money is if the FBI declares it believes in magic. Rhodes is frustrated with this smug gang but Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent) seems more open to the possibility that all is not what it seems. Forced to work together, this pair turns first to Thaddeaus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a debunker of magic, who shows them how the first trick was done and tells Rhodes that the FBI will be unprepared for the second trick, no matter how good they think their surveillance is.
As the Four Horsemen continue their “performances,” we learn that there is a backstory to their thievery and part of the trick is in setting right injustices.
“Now You See Me” is a strange title. Yes, it conveys that the story is about magic, but it is completely unmagical. It has a kind of bland, “the focus groups hated everything else” feel about it. It’s clunky and vague — and a pretty fitting example of the movie overall.
A not-bad concept with not-bad actors, Now You See Me is clunkily executed and vague when it starts to hit its third act. How do the Horsemen plan to finish a crime spree that has delighted crowds with its twistiness and befuddled law enforcement? “I dunno, with some stuff,” is how the movie seems to respond.
If the Four Horsemen are the Beatles of magic, performing their “final show” on top of a building surrounded by a cheering crowd, their set is the equivalent of walking on stage, playing the opening notes of “She Loves You” and then exiting the stage before the first “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The movie asks us to accept “just because” a little too often for a story built on deceiving us and then getting us to delight in the mechanics of the obsession.
And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who seems to be working at a different speed than the rest of the movie. He is fun to watch as the beleaguered investigator — I’d absolutely watch the procedural show where FBI agent Mark Ruffalo tries to make his name as a serious lawman in wacky-crime-filled Las Vegas. But the movie ultimately doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. (Meanwhile, the movie does know what to do with Eisenberg. I suspect his direction went something like this: “make the audience want to smack you all the time.” If so, job well done.)
Now You See Me has some appealing elements — a lightness that makes it feel like a softer, more fun version of something like Inception (an Inception Shandy, perhaps). And most of the performances range between watchable and enjoyable. But it never quite pulls together into the romp it could have been or — even better — the ode to magic that it seems to want to be. C
Rated PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content. Directed by Louis Leterrier with a screenplay by Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (from a story by Yakin & Ricourt), Now You See Me is an hour and 56 minutes long and distributed by Summit Entertainment.