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Review: Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me (2013)

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Premise: A group of magicians perform a bank heist as a part of their Las Vegas act. An FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an INTERPOL detective (Mélanie Laurent) try to unveil their plans.

What Works: Now You See Me works best when the filmmakers are being playful. The movie has a mischievous and irreverent style and when the filmmakers capitalize on that the movie is a reasonably good time. Now You See Me is helped in this regard by a very strong core cast. The magicians are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco. Each of these actors is cast based on his or her strengths and the scenes of the magicians attempting to one-up each other or con the audience are fun. The film also includes Mélanie Laurent as an INTERPOL detective who is smitten with the art of illusion and Morgan Freeman as a mysterious television personality. None of the actors in Now You See Me are stretching their talents but their presence adds some credibility to a picture that is sorely lacking it.

What Doesn’t: Movies about magicians are usually lame. There are exceptions of course, such as The Prestige and Lord of Illusions, but all too often movies about stage magicians end up as dreck like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Now You See Me is yet another attempt to make a motion picture based around magicians but the failures of this particular film highlight why movies about magicians usually do not work. As Nick Schager pointed out in a recent piece for Vulture, both stage magic and cinema are based on creating illusions that defy reality but stage performers have the upper hand because their illusions occur live and in real time. Moviegoers approach a motion picture with an understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking and whatever spectacle the moviemakers can conjure on screen is understood to be a product of labor and technology. Now You See Me exacerbates this vulnerability by not even trying to maintain an illusion of realism. Successful movies about magicians, like The Prestige, keep the performer’s feats tethered to recognizable reality; the movie is made in a realistic fashion, stunts are done practically, and if digital effects are used they are done in a limited or subtle way. But the filmmakers of Now You See Me use a lot of slick camera work, complicated editing, and very obvious digital effects and so the moviemakers cannot set up the audience for a trick. As a result, the movie represents the conundrum of filmmaking in the digital age. When everything is possible, nothing is believable. Aside from the problems with its subject, Now You See Me suffers from a lot of basic storytelling failures. There is no coherent point of view character in this movie. Every one of the characters is kept at arm’s length and as a result so is the audience. Because there is no one through whose eyes we witness the story there is nowhere for the audience to invest its empathy. All of the actors in the lead roles were clearly cast to type and the filmmakers depend on the public image of the actors to fill in for the lack of characterization. Now You See Me is further hurt because it is so pointless. These magicians are up to some grand design but when it is finally revealed it is as underwhelming as the detective story is uninteresting. For the climax, the filmmakers of Now You See Me concoct a stupid twist ending that is worthy of M. Night Shyamalan. Some twist endings work because they are narrative sleights-of-hand that are carefully thought out by the filmmakers. The ending of Now You See Me is the kind of twist that no one sees coming because it doesn’t make any sense.

Bottom Line: The filmmakers of Now You See Me attempt to tell an original story and in a Hollywood marketplace dominated by sequels and remakes that is admirable. But this movie is too sloppy and all its magic annot distract from the emptiness at the center of it.

Episode: #422 (June 9, 2013)