Now You See Me

Beth and I decided to check out a pre-premiere, Thursday night showing of Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me. It’s the story of four magicians-turned-thieves, called “The Four Horsemen”  (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) and the FBI agent who is chasing them down (Mark Ruffalo). I think it’s an interesting idea, and I thought the movie looked like it could be fun. Unfortunately, no amount of hocus-pocus could turn this into a good film.

Let’s start with the cast. I was ready to get some laughs out of Eisenberg and Harrelson teaming up again after Zombieland, this time with Isla Fisher in the Emma Stone role. Harrelson does well with what he’s given, and his role as a “mentalist” allows him the chance to talk sneaky, smart and charming. Eisenberg is, well, Eisenberg. During a scene with him in an interrogation room, I was constantly thinking “this is Mark Zuckerberg, but he can do magic.” Maybe that’s a testament to the power of his role in The Social Network. I think it reveals his limited range. Whatever entertaining rapport they had in Zombieland is absent here. Isla Fisher doesn’t really register beyond being cute and inexplicably wearing gloves the entire time. Oh, and Dave Franco’s fraternity was kind enough to let him take a leave of absence to star in this.

Mark Ruffalo seems to be sleepwalking through his performance. To be honest, I like the guy, but I get that “sleepy” vibe from him in a lot of stuff, so maybe this is just standard Ruffalo. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are just picking up paychecks here. They’re not bad or anything, but there’s no reason they need to be in these roles. Freeman does get a nice callback to a certain acclaimed prison movie he starred in a couple decades ago.

The brightest spot in the cast is Mélanie Laurent as an INTERPOL agent working with Ruffalo’s character. Maybe it’s her accent, maybe she’s cute, maybe it’s because I loved her so much in Inglourious Basterds (and Beginners), but whatever it is, she was, in my opinion, the best actor up there on the screen. It’s too bad she had to be in this movie, particularly when the script has her yelling “Don’t EVER tell me to stay in the car again!” just a few scenes before yelling “Don’t EVER talk to me that way again!” She’s also saddled with one of the worst lines and moments in the film which I won’t spoil here, but which you’ll probably guess might happen from the moment she appears on screen.

On to the writing. I think the major problem with the film is that the entire thing is about three or four big “magic” tricks (“illusions, Michael”) and not much else. The writers seem to have let their imaginations go wild to come up with some of the magical payoffs, and then they had to work backward to figure out a reasonable way to get to those big moments. Some parts make sense with a little stretching of reality. More often they rely on ridiculously improbable coincidences laid out in advance, sometimes WAY too far in advance to be remotely believable. Oh, and when it’s too difficult to come up with a solution based in some kind of reality, why not just use some more CGI to bend/break the rules and tie it all to some invented secret magic society called the Eye of Horus?

Leterrier and the writers tell us the bare minimum about everything in hopes that we’ll accept their explanations without thinking too hard about what’s actually happening. We never get enough time with any of the characters to know or care about them either. The film tries a little bit with Ruffalo, oddly abandoning the Four Horsemen for long stretches and confusing us on who exactly we’re supposed to be identifying with and rooting for. When there’s no real “entry point” for the audience, particularly in a film like this, that’s a problem.

Maybe I’m too much of a stickler to turn my mind off and just enjoy. After all, did I expect to see only real, practical magic in this movie? No, I didn’t, but I thought maybe it could make a little bit of sense in a The Prestige meets Ocean’s 11 sort of way (even if there’s a bit of the supernatural involved). The big reveals are so littered with plot holes and perfect coincidences that I couldn’t stop shaking my head and wishing we had finally gone to see Star Trek Into Darkness instead. And it wasn’t just the big moments that had me shaking my head, it was everything.

Here’s a small example (with a tiny spoiler in just this paragraph): Ruffalo’s character and his FBI crew are in attendance at the Horsemen’s second big magic show. They’ve caught wise to the bank robbery committed as part of the first show and Ruffalo is hoping to catch them in the act, quite literally. During a magical montage, Harrelson’s character hypnotizes about a dozen people on stage, telling them that when they hear the word “freeze,” they’re supposed to tackle the person who yells it, “killing the quarterback” as he puts it. He then sends them back to their seats (presumably without doing any other hypno-tricks, as the film gives no evidence to the contrary). Have you figured who might be the one to yell “freeze” and get tackled to put a button on the end of this scene? You did? Good job, you’re smarter than the writers give you credit for, and therefore you’ll probably dislike this movie as much as I did.

All that said, there is one big twist in the film that worked for me. Unfortunately, it only worked for about two seconds. Then I started to think about it. Maybe that’s the difference between good magic and bad magic. A good magic trick should leave you wondering “how’d they do that?” with a sense of awe, admiration and amusement. With all of the plot holes, contrivances, coincidences and improbabilities, Now You See Me left me asking “why’d they do that?”

“Mind. Blown.” Beth said to me sarcastically after the final reveal. More like $21 blown.

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