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No movie magic for a movie about magic
A movie about bank robber magicians doesn’t sound great on paper. Coincidentally, a movie about bank robber magicians is also not great on screen. Maybe modern magicians are just inherently silly. Today, many people associate magicians with Vegas performers like David Copperfield, the mysterious dark-haired performer with an overly melodramatic stage persona, complete with puffy shirt and long flowing handkerchiefs. Or people like David Blaine, the stuntman who stands on tall poles for weeks on end and freezes himself in blocks of ice. More than likely, though, most people think about “Arrested Development”’s Gob Bluth, standing in a group of magicians all dressed for their act with a sign that says “We demand to be taken seriously.” I’ve got nothing against magicians—I like misdirection and sleight-of-hand as much as the next guy—but the magic industry has a PR problem. Unfortunately, “Now You See Me” does nothing to make magic seem any cooler. If anything, it might make you roll your eyes a little bit more.
The film is essentially a heist movie, like “Ocean’s 11-13.” Just like those films, “Now You See Me” boasts a wonderful cast, with actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Woody Harrelson. Four street performers with only modest success in the magic industry are approached separately by an anonymous benefactor to put on three giant shows for the purpose of stealing enormous amounts of money to redistribute to the audience. The plot follows Mark Ruffalo’s character as he chases the magicians from show to show, trying to catch them in the act but always lagging one step behind. The plotting is relatively thin and the tricks are rather obvious to anyone that has ever seen anything by The Amazing Randi. Those that appear unexplainable can be attributed to the illusion of CGI. The misdirections that the screenwriters attempted to include in the plot are telegraphed more than Western Union, and any one paying attention can easily see where the film will end up. There isn’t any tension in the film because the characters don’t appear to have any flaws. Every act, every set up is executed perfectly while the FBI follows along, hapless and mystified.
This is by far the largest problem with the film. It might have been a decent concept if the film had any characters to speak of. Instead of characters, we have boilerplate stand-ins that have no personalities beyond the very narrow definition of their role: The close magic/card trick guy. The assistant-turned-escape-artist. The mentalist/hypnotist. The swindler/rogue. These four are pitted against the most American of film stereotypes: the hard-boiled cop that has no time for shenanigans. Add to these typical movie tropes a forced and awkward love story, and you have a film that is boring and unconvincing. For a movie about magicians to work, the audience needs to be able to see them off the stage, where they behave like real people with actual motivations.
Films like “The Prestige” or “The Illusionist” worked well because we saw a lifetime of work and commitment out of magicians who had actual relationships with other people that weren’t simply part of the act. There is nothing at stake in this film, and as a result it’s hard to care about it.
There are a few scenes that are amusing, largely because of the talent of the cast. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg do a good job at being smarmy and self satisfied, which here is shown as being a positive personality trait. It’s almost like in every scene, you can almost hear “The Final Countdown” playing softly somewhere in the background.
The film tries very hard to be electrifying and explosive, but the flames fizzle and fail, dampening the audience’s enthusiasm. I guess you could ask where the lighter fluid came from. I would suggest staying home and watching the newest season of “Arrested Development” on Netflix rather than wasting even a matinee on “Now You See Me.”