A movie about a group of stage magicians using their skills of misdirection, illusion, sleight of hand and other tricks of the trade to pull of a series of increasingly elaborate heists is, quite frankly, a kickass idea. In the hands of a truly skilled director, Now You See Me could have been one of the most fun, clever movies of the year. Unfortunately, the project found its way into the hands of Louis Leterrier, whose works have generally ranged from “fairly good” (The Incredible Hulk) to godawful (The Transporter series), though thankfully Now You See Me falls in the “fairly good” category.
The story opens on four magicians: Jesse Eisenberg as a street magician, Isla Fisher as a more high-profile escape artist, Woody Harrelson as a mentalist and Dave Franco as an annoying douche. After receiving a mysterious invitation, the four meet in an old apartment to find fancy holographic plans for the trick of a lifetime. Flash forward a year later and the four have become “The Four Horseman” (original name!) a top-tier magic act with shows all over the globe. After a trick where millions of dollars disappear from a bank on the other side the world only to be distributed to the audience, the four fall under the scrutiny of an FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent as his Interpol counterpart, who are tasked with figuring out how they did it and stopping them from doing it again after the four are released.
The nutshell version of this is the phrase “missed potential.” Given the premise, this is a film that should have been far more entertaining than it ended up being. Perfect example, it turns out midway through the film that the four are actually taking part in an incredibly elaborate initiation ceremony for a group called The Eye, a centuries-old secret society of master magicians and illusionists who use their skills to steal from the rich and give to the poor and on the bus ride home I suddenly realized “Wait a minute, why wasn’t the movie about them?!?”
I mean think about that, a whole secret club of world-class illusionists pulling off heists so elaborate that they’ve managed to keep their existence secret for thousands of years. I want to see that movie! It could be like that scene in Men in Black where you first see the control room except it’s full of guys in top hats and poofy shirts and sexy assistants all plotting Ocean’s 11 style capers and making rabbits disappear. That’s the movie I wanna see!
The movie never quite manages to live up the potential of its premise. Sure, the means the four use to pull off their heists are quite clever and inventive, but all the while something feels missing.
There’s one gloriously awesome scene where Dave Franco suddenly starts using sleight of hand kung-fu to dodge Ruffalo and another agent and for one minute the whole thing comes together. He’s throwing fireballs, flicking playing cards, disappearing behind curtains, it’s by far the highlight of the entire film. The only problem with it is that I could only see what was going on some of the time, which brings me to the technical side of things.
The movie is terribly filmed. Like, imagine if JJ Abrams and Paul Greengrass had a baby, and the baby grew up, somehow survived high school despite literally being the product of the world’s first man-on-man mating, and the kid grew up and started directing, mashing the worst aspects of his parents’ styles. During chase scenes, the camera shakes and tumbles like a drunk zombie is holding it and when it’s actually being held steady there’s Abrams-style lens flares out the butt. It’s almost as though the movie were conspiring to give me a migraine, in which case mission accomplished. You asshole.
On the acting front, things are a tad imbalanced, but that’s more to do with the script than anything else. Despite their prominence in the posters and trailers and whatnot, the four magicians aren’t actually the main characters. We spend far more time with Ruffalo and Laurent’s characters, leaving them to do the heavy lifting, dramatically. Of course, this works out great, since they’re both extremely talented.
The four, however, get left out in the cold a tad. In order to keep the mystery behind the tricks and their big scheme, they barely have any screentime when they aren’t on-stage, and the only characterization you get then is them speaking in booming voices and asking “What is magic?” For those few times we do get to see them just being themselves, we don’t get much.
Eisenberg seems to just be recycling his Mark Zukerberg persona, the smug douchebag with a talent for making people around him want to punch him in the throat. Isla Fisher gets even less to work with, all we ever really learn about her over course of the film is that she’s a girl, laughs a lot and enjoys leather pants.
Woody Harrelson does the best, coming off as the gruff yet charming one, but this IS Woody Harrelson we’re talking about, the man oozes gruff yet charming the way Dave Franco oozes annoying twerp. And oh yeah, Dave Franco is an annoying twerp. Surprise!
It’s also a tad twisty. There’s this big surprise twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure works. It’s not one of those brilliant The Prestige or Sixth Sense twists that makes so much sense when you think about it and oh God why did I never notice etc. But at least it’s not one of those “wait seriously?” twists that makes you want to throttle the screenwriter like I’m told that new Tom Cruise thing has. All it really does it leave you with a lot of questions and maybe make you want to watch the movie again to see if it actually makes sense, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing.
Now You See Me is a perfectly entertaining heist thriller with a clever premise and one or two really entertaining scenes. But that’s really all you’ll get out of it. The promise of the set-up is never quite lived up to and the awful camera work and lack of characterization for half the cast means the movie doesn’t so much pull a rabbit out of the hat as a half-dead squirrel.