Hollywood seems to be on a magic kick as of somewhat late with films such as The Illusionist, The Prestige, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The latest entry in Abracadabracinema, Now You See Me, revolves around a quartet of Robin Hood-esque magicians who use their skills to pull off spectacular real-life heists in front of large audiences.
The film opens with an introduction to the group who soon become known as The Four Horsemen. There’s J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a sharp-tongued street magician who prides himself on always being the smartest guy in the room, Henley Reeves, a former magician’s assistant turned main attraction escape artist, hypnotist con-man Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and pick-pocket hustler Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Each magician receives a cryptic invite from an unknown mastermind to meet at a secret location.
Cut to one year later. The Four Horsemen are now headlining their own show at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand financed by multimillionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). During their performance they declare they are going to rob a bank by teleporting a random audience member to Paris. And apparently, they do! Upon inspection, the bank vault is empty and millions of euros fall from the sky onto the audience in the theater.
This leads to an investigation headed by FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and aided by a French Interpol detective (Mélanie Laurent). But the Horsemen always manage to stay one step ahead and soon they are on to their next grand routine.
Also trailing the four is renowned magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), dead-set on revealing their secrets to the public for his own profit.
Throughout the twists, turns, and misdirections, it soon becomes evident that there is a Fifth Horseman.
The cast is superb and perfectly assembled. Harrelson, Eisenberg, Fisher, and Franco are wonderfully believable as the magical gang. Each actor studied their character’s specialty and it shows.
I was most impressed with Jesse Eisenberg, who undoubtedly put in hours of slight-of-hand practice. His performance recalls some of that nerdy cockiness displayed in The Social Network to give his character the perfect amount of David Blaine smartassiness without going into full-on Criss Angel douchebag territory.
Now you See Me is a well-shot and a good-looking movie. The action moves along at a quick pace, thoroughly keeping the audience entertained and guessing along the way.
I also want to raise a glass to the movie for, along with the aforementioned titles, bringing magic into the mainstream and making it look cool. Unlike its predecessor, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, this movie takes the craft more seriously and I could see it inspiring viewers to want to learn more and maybe even pick up a magic kit themselves.
Just please, not this one.
I have a little reveal of my own. I was looking forward to this movie because it hits home for me. I grew up around magic. My father is a mentalist/hypnotist and a member of the mysterious secret society, “The Eye,” mentioned in this movie.
I’m kidding about that. There’s no such thing as “The Eye.” (There is an organization called The International Brotherhood of Magicians, but it’s much easier to get into than the fictional Eye.)
This is the only real-life Magic Eye. “Cool, a sailboat!”
But the part about my dad being a mentalist is true. Though not a magician myself (my magic career came to an abrupt end when a Cups and Balls routine went terribly wrong during show-and-tell in the fourth grade), I was obsessed with magic growing up, pestering my father to tell me all the secrets. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of re-watching the David Copperfield specials in slow-motion with him explaining step-by-step the magic behind the magic to me. He taught me how to think like a magician which turned out to be a skill I can actually use in everyday life. As a result I’m definitely more critical than most people when watching magic being performed. I wouldn’t say I’m jaded, it’s just that the wonder of it is a different kind of wonder for me.
With that, on to the prestidigitation in Now You See Me. The smaller-scale effects involved, for instance the opening card trick which cleverly turns the audience into the subjects (Yes, I know how it’s done. No, I’m not telling you), are far more impressive than the grand stage illusions. The reason? Most of the big illusions use camera tricks and/or CGI, and are impossible to do “in real life.” This really bugged me because there were actual magic consultants involved in the making of this film. So I am confused by director Louis Leterrier’s decision to take the easy way out and fake it with cuts and computers.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for special effects. In a sci-fi or fantasy film we expect to be wowed by fancy CGI, but a movie such as this one that’s based in reality in which we are asked to believe the amazing feats are being performed by regular human beings, it feels out of place. I’ll give you an example: During one of the Four Horsemen’s acts, Isla Fisher’s character is encased in a large bubble that floats high above the audience. The bubble pops and she falls straight down, perfectly positioned to be caught. Now, it’s possible this effect could be accomplished on a live stage with the help of hidden wires, but the way it’s portrayed on-screen it looks as though she is literally suspended inside the thin film of a soapy bubble. Couldn’t they have just called someone from Cirque Du Soleil and done something similar that looked remotely plausible?
Again, this kind of thing works in some movies, not others.
Likewise, the use of hypnosis also got on my nerves because it perpetuates common (false) myths. Similar to the use of camera tricks in fantasy movies vs. reality-based movies, there’s a double standard here as well. Many films use hypnotism as a plot contrivance and can get away with inaccuracies for the sake of the story when the story is not about it specifically (Office Space is a good example of this), however, in one about magic/hypnotism to do so is just being lazy.
I’m going to lay out the facts for you: A person can NOT be hypnotized against their will. While under hypnosis, a person can NOT be made to do or reveal anything they would not normally do or reveal. A person does NOT “stay” hypnotized (even if they are not taken out of a hypnotic state, they will come out of it after sleeping). It’s pretty much impossible to be hypnotized over the phone. Finally, the idea that random suggestions not even given under hypnosis can stay in a person’s mind for months and lead them to make major choices is flat-out ridiculous. All of these things are in Now You See Me, and while they make for some amusing scenes, it conflicts with the intended goal of the film to present magic (for the most part) realistically.
I realize I’m being nit-picky here and many theatergoers would be likely to overlook a lot of these things, but suck it, this is my review.
Though they have decent chemistry, the romance between Ruffalo and Laurent’s characters feels forced and is unnecessary. (The time spent on building their relationship would have been better used on getting to know the Four Horsemen, whom we never get to learn much about.) Besides adding nothing to the story, it messes with the pacing of the movie. Every time the action builds, it’s dragged down by a follow-up scene of cutesy flirt-bickering between the two. There would have been one very good payoff to the inclusion of this subplot, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Which leads me to my final beer…
Earlier this year, I reviewed The Call, a fun and fast-paced thrill ride of a movie—until the ending that nearly ruined the entire thing. I had the same frustration with Now You See Me. The final big reveal is indeed a shocker that even David Copperfield probably didn’t see coming (well okay, maybe he did since he was a consultant on the movie but you know what I mean). It’s good for a cheap “Oh my God!” moment, but soon after that “Oh my God!” turns to “Oh my God, are you friggin’ SERIOUS?” The more and more you think about it, the more implausible and preposterous it becomes. I can’t go into more detail about it because to do so would give it away. Trust me though, it will piss you off.
Feel free to cut this out and wear it on your way out of the theater.
Now You See Me is mixed bag of tricks that fails to live up to its excitingly original concept. As a cat-and-mouse caper, it can be a lot of fun, due in large part to its stellar ensemble. It’s visually appealing, all the more entertaining if you can overlook the CGI-aided illusions. However, as more and more of the plot is uncovered and the story gets increasingly convoluted, it falls apart like an ill-conceived and poorly executed magic trick. Think of it as a magician attempting to misdirect the audience with a flashy explosion, but all the audience can see are the wires, controls, and rabbits falling out of his coat.
Take a Drink: whenever Daniel Atlas has a smart-ass comeback.
Take a Drink: every time Henley strips down to a sparkly bodysuit.
Take a Drink: every time Dylan makes a negative comment about magic.
Take a Drink: every time Merrit hits on Henley.
Take a Drink: every time there’s smoke.
Take a Drink: whenever anyone mentions “The Eye.”
Do a Shot: every time you spot a camera trick.
Chug: until you stop rehashing the entire movie trying to make sense of everything after the twist is revealed. It’s pointless.