I wanted to believe.
I’d talked to Jesse Eisenberg in person a couple weeks back at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, after all. He trumpeted the merits of his latest magic-heist blockbuster. I asked him questions. He laughed at my jokes.
As it turned out, the best illusion of Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me wasn’t one pulled off by Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas and the rest of his group of criminal-minded magicians, the
“Four Horsemen.” It’s this: Loud noises, special effects and fiery car chases aside, the film isn’t actually very good.
The first 20 minutes are promising, as we’re introduced to the star-studded cast of Atlas, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson). Through snapshots of the magicians at work — Atlas and Reeves on stage, McKinney and Wilder hustling random bystanders — we get an initial glimpse into their individual personalities and what they do best. All four then receive a card from a secret magic organization asking them to meet. They do.
The title screen drops. The blindfold comes off. The movie goes downhill.
We reconvene “one year later,” using the classic cinematic trope, and it’s unclear what exactly has happened over that 365-day span. As it’s revealed later, the Four Horsemen don’t know who recruited them, but that apparently hasn’t been enough to caution them against suddenly beginning a life of high-style — and incredibly high-risk — crime.
They simultaneously rob a Parisian bank the first time we see them on stage in Las Vegas, and while the film tries to explain their supposedly rational reason for doing so, the explanation toward the end of the film still falls far short of a full deck. Add that to the fact that, after no apparent training, Wilder displays the martial arts abilities of a master ninja during one fight scene. It doesn’t add up.
But what might have magically changed during that year in terms of the quartet’s combat skills and wariness toward vault robberies, certainly didn’t change in terms of legitimate character development.Leterrier in particular sets up Atlas for some kind of evolution over the course of the movie, with McKinney pointing out early on how big of a “control freak” the de facto leader is. Furthermore, we learn during the aforementioned meet-up that Reeves used to be Atlas’ assistant and that the two used to have some kind of fling. None of these storylines end up going anywhere.
The surprising lack of chemistry within the high-profile cast extends beyond the two non-lovebirds, however, as Now You See Me seems to suffer from the familiar problem of having too many big names to fit into a two-hour run time. Morgan Freeman plays magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, Mark Ruffalo is FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes and Michael Caine — whose only purpose seems to be exciting Batman fans by his reunion with Freeman — portrays Four Horsemen benefactor ArthurTressler.
Having attention-grabbing leads is great. More power to you. But with that kind of casting comes a forced kind of responsibility to divide the spotlight, and the unfortunate result is that you don’t feel like you’ve really gotten to know any of the characters by the time all is said and done — or, at least, you’ve come to learn how sincerely vapid each one is.
As the Four Horsemen are being hunted by Rhodes and the rest of his hopelessly incompetent task force, they escalate their daring and brazen actions. Eventually, all the furor comes to a head in New York City, and then the twist happens. I won’t spoil it, obviously, but suffice it to say that Fight Club this is not.
In explaining what drew him to the project, Eisenberg said, “I was always frustrated by magic because I was frustrated not knowing how it was done. So I liked being able to do this movie because I liked finding out how things were done.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s also ignoring the fact that some of the Horsemen’s tricks utilize actual magic that can’t be explained by illusion, even if the entertainment factor may be enough to raise Now You See Me to the point of “watchable.”
And while Eisenberg may have gotten pre-production training from David Copperfield and others, the film leaves us very much out of the magicians’ loop. Ultimately, the Four Horsemen’s best trick was hardly the mess they saved for the finale: What I’m still dying to learn is how they got me to pay $10.