“How did you do that?” This might be the question most frequently asked of magicians, and the answer is rarely forthcoming. The beauty of magic, the appeal and the thrill, is precisely the how. In movies about magic, that question is typically undone by definition, because movies, by definition, cheat. They cut between shots, they conjure special effects, they grant super powers and possibilities to an enterprise that — at its most enchanting and most endearing — is all about non-superness, about ordinary, non-special means to extraordinary, special-seeming effects.
To be fair, Now You See Me is only nominally a movie about magic. It’s really about assembling a slew of well known stars, old and young, in a story about good guys and bad guys, some caper movie components, some vaguely twisty plot turns, and a general notion of vengeance. That these elements are situated amid a series of special effects deemed magic — on a stage and/or in front of audiences who ooh and ahh — is of minimal consequence. Indeed, the primary consequence is that you are left to ponder how odd it is to see Jesse Eisenberg, that most non-sensational of performers, gesticulating like one a most sensational performer, a puffy, designer-dressed Vegas entrepreneur, who comes equipped with a silent, much younger, and very high-heeled female assistant (Caitriona Balfe)
Eisenberg plays Daniel Atlas, one of the several youngsters gathered together by a mastermind whose identity remains more or less disguised until film’s end (less if you give the proceedings any thought as they proceed, more if you just give up and go along with the ride). Danny and his cohorts form the Four Horsemen, something like the Avengers or the X Men, or any other comic book hero grouping, each member with a particular neurosis, power, and skill he or she brings to bear on the mastermind’s master scheme. So, Danny does card tricks, or sleight of hand more generally, Merritt (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist and hypnotist, Jack (Dave Franco) a pickpocket (a great magic trick, in its way), and the Girl, also called Henley (Isla Fisher) chains herself up in water tanks with piranhas, probably less of a trick than picking pockets.
Joined together to perform a limited series of shows for the monstrously wealthy Vegas guy Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they soon learn that their tricks are meant for purposes other than wowing paying crowds. As their understanding of the caper evolves (or doesn’t, as following instructions doesn’t necessarily mean they know reasons or big pictures), they are pursued by a dogged FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), assisted by INTERPOL agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent), and enlisting the expertise of magic Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman). (Common also shows up intermittently as a crotchety cop, only making you wonder what better projects he might be putting together with his considerable creative energies.) While Thaddeus repeatedly explains to them that he can’t explain to them what’s going on, because they’re just cops and can’t possibly get it, Alma looks very nice in sleeveless tops, Dylan looks increasingly frustrated.
The film divides its emotional time between the magicians who are transformed into a band of Robin Hoods, stealing from banks and insurance companies in order to give back to, say, Katrina victims who never got paid, and Dylan, whose sense of mission as a cop isn’t nearly so convincing or sympathetic as his Mark Ruffaloish rumpledness. He stands, or slouches, with hands in pockets, as the opposite of the slickness so overrepresented here by the magicians, whose saving grace may be their ignorance. More often, you’re confronted by an onslaught of slickness, in the tricks (lights, sweeping camera action, glib orchestral flares), in their overwritten quips and contrived romantic tensions, as well as their intragroup quarrels, over reputation, control, and macho posing — this, again, by magicians, people who wave their hands and utter magic words and wear tacky jackets.
The movie tries very hard to have it all ways, to celebrate the rebellious, sarcastic youthful versions of magicians as well as the traditional, uncynical belief demanded by magic as an idea and also as an industry, to extol the virtues of movie romance while making fun of same, to ponder the mechanics of tricks while relying on CGI and cinematic business. And this makes none of the ways convincing, which is kind of an important effect in itself, not only in magic shows but also in caper movies. While you’re waiting for the movie to be over, and if you’re inclined to meta-contemplations, you might take up this one: what sort of sleight of hand, or mental trick or daredevil-stunty threat made someone think this was a good idea?