Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.
The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?
The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.
What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.
It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.
Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.