‘Now You See Me’ Is but an Illusion of Substance

[10 September 2013]

By Matt Grant

Magic is always a tough sell. Any magician worth their top hat knows that success lies in misdirection – in fooling members of the audience into thinking they’re watching something much more interesting than what they actually are (but don’t realize). In our increasingly cynical society, everything has a logical explanation, and magic is generally relegated to a place at the kids table along.

Films about magic, then, are trickier yet. If you’re not going the literal route, a la Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, the focus generally becomes the art of deception and illusion. Movies like The Prestige and The Illusionist worked like magic tricks, keeping the audience guessing as to how the illusions were pulled off. Now You See Me is no different, although it stands out with an additional twist: it also tries to be a heist movie. The problem is that with so much ambition and style, any substance winds up being no more than smoke and mirrors. 

The best way to describe Now You See Me is that it’s like a poor man’s Ocean’s Eleven. Even the movie poster, with the cast of characters strutting through the title’s lettering, evokes stark black torsos standing on a large red double-digit number. Both films are heist films; but where Ocean’s Eleven managed to gleefully embrace its implausibility through a likeable cast, Now You See Me gets so bogged down in subplots that it never really finds its center.

The movie begins when four solo stage acts, tapped individually by a mysteriously hooded figure (yes, really) for either their various skills in sleight of hand or simply having impossibly cool names, are brought together to form “the biggest act in magic.” There’s the cantankerous mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), who can apparently hypnotize someone in less than five seconds; greenhorn Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), small-timing as a pickpocket street magician; The Girl, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), with no discernible relevancy beyond being an escape artist and possessing two X chromosomes; and fast-talking J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), who is the closest we will ever come to seeing Mark Zuckerberg channel David Copperfield.

When this new act called The Four Horesmen turns heads in Vegas by robbing a bank in Paris without ever leaving the stage, it piques the interest of Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), from FBI and Interpol respectively. Rhodes and Dray arrest the performers, but eventually let them go with no proof of how the robbery was pulled off.

Desperate, the agents turn to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), an ex-magician who now earns a living “debunking” illusions for a profitable DVD series – which might just qualify him as the biggest killjoy ever. Then there’s Arthur Tressler (Michael Cain), the Horesmen’s generous benefactor, who eventually finds that he might also be in over his head when it comes to dealing with these cunning magicians.

That’s a lot of balls in the air, and a lot of talented stars needing equal screen time. Unfortunately, director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans) tries to give it to them. The majority of the story follows Rhodes and Dray as they struggle to stay two steps ahead of the Horsemen, but it seems like a lot of the focus is misplaced.

We are left with wanting to know more about the cryptic Horsemen, but any character development doesn’t go much beyond Merritt McKinney trying to get Henley Reeves into bed with him. While Rhodes and Dray are allowed some actually human emotion, eventually, witnessing the befuddled detectives continually fail to learn from their own mistakes starts to grow old. 

Perhaps that’s the reason Now You See Me never quite dazzles the way it should. The reason magic is a tough sell is because audiences – especially adult audiences – are always looking to expose the secret behind the illusion. They want to feel smarter than the magician, to prove that they figured out how it was done.

In a film that depends on such twists and illusions to work, where “nothing is as it seems” is taken to its ludicrous limit, true genuine surprise is hard to come by. It tries to work like one big illusion of itself, trying to fool you into who to root for and who to be suspicious of, but like the irritating Thaddeus Bradley, all you start to care about is figuring out what’s coming next, and how.

Ironically, Now You See Me shines the most when the truth behind the Horsemen’s elaborate hoaxes are revealed, but the film picks and chooses which secrets to expose and which to keep under lock and key. It eventually transpires that this is all part of a much bigger plot, and that someone has been pulling the strings even behind the Horesmen’s shenanigans from the beginning (cue reappearance of mysterious hooded figure). But when that point finally comes, it’s less of a shock and more of an expectation.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD versions contain an audio commentary with the director and producer Bobby Cohen, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette that reveals some insight into why certain illusions were chosen for the story. The Blu-ray version comes with additional deleted scenes and an interesting eleven-minute documentary called “A Brief History of Magic”, hosted by magician David Kwong, who was Head Magic Constultant on the film. Although much too short to delve into any serious “history” of magic, the featurette still shows some of the tradition behind the four sects of magic in Now You See Me: sleight of hand, street magic, escape artistry and mentalism. According to Leterrier, the film was conceived as a “diptych”, one story told over the course of two movies.

The Blu-ray edition also includes a special “Extended Edition,” including ten extra minutes of the film, including a scene during the end credits which sets up a possible sequel. And sure enough, Lionsgate recently announced a second installment with Leterrier back at the helm. Hopefully the second film will reveal much more about the shady past – and futures – of the central characters, rather than focusing just on showmanship.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/now-you-see-me/