In the name of “criminal magic”, director Louis Leterrier assembled a decorated roster of actors to pull off his Oceans-esque film, Now You See Me. From the opening scenes, it’s evident that these magicians are more than just semi-professionals – they’re at the top of their game. From the David Blaine wannabe J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) to the hilariously funny mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Now You See Me begs the audience for a willing suspension of disbelief and demands a kind of juvenile fascination with sleight-of-hand movements, and a willingness to be tricked along with the characters. Sitting in the theater, you know what’s on screen is beyond impossible but as Leterrier constantly reminds us throughout the film, when you think you know where the magic is happening – you should second-guess yourself. It’s probably just a distraction from where all the tricks are really being pulled off. That is Now You See Me’s strongest asset.
The film begins in full Ocean’s mode, individually presenting its cast of magical virtuosos: Jesse Eisenberg as a celebrity street magician, evoking a disdainful cockiness unseen since his turn as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network; a typically outlandish Woody Harrelson, the hypnotic mentalist who has an uncanny knack for drudging up painful, suppressed memories in his subjects’ past; escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), who makes her splashy debut pretending to be eaten alive by a tank of flesh-hungry piranhas; and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), as a rookie pickpocket slash punk street magician working the ferries off Manhattan. Each of the four magicians are summoned to a mysterious location in New York after discovering tarot cards at their respective places of magic – the card contains a date, time and location. This part of the movie, for me, was a little too Rat Race but we were only 10 minutes in – I gave it the benefit of the doubt.
As the performers arrive, each is wary of the other; magicians obviously don’t hand out trust as easily as the girls they saw in half. And each thinks he or she is a notch or two above the others, Atlas in particular. They stand before a “locked” door, contemplating why they’ve been called together – they know of one another but don’t consider anyone a friend (well, if you can believe it or not, Fisher and Eisenberg have a tension-heavy past that serves as the awkward love storyline in the film). Once Wilder picks the lock, the group of high-stake-heist masters discover a white rose and folded piece of paper that reads “Now You Don’t” – miraculously, in an almost Law & Order: SVU rush to solution, they solve the riddle and figure out what to do by meshing together ideas plucked seemingly from thin air.
A year later, they are known as the Four Horsemen and once assembled in Vegas, this group of commanding swindlers pulls off its first hit, somehow robbing a bank in Paris from a stage in Sin City, and then showering the audience with the stolen cash. Of course, they didn’t really transport physical money through the air and pump it into the theater – but for Mark Ruffalo’s peeved FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes, he doesn’t need to know anymore. They’ve somehow managed to steal more than $3 million and he spends most of the movie in hot pursuit of the unstoppable horsemen, stuck with the unenviable task of making a case against them, and the enviable task of resisting the charms of Interpol detective Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) sent in from Paris to assist. Meanwhile, in what could be likened to an unofficial Dark Knight reunion, Michael Caine plays Arthur Tressler, the Four Horsemen’s wealthy benefactor and Morgan Freeman portrays Thaddeus Bradley, a former magician turned reality TV host who debunks illusionists – he’s hot on the trail of the Four Horsemen, video recording their shows and debunking their every move.
With Agent Rhodes and his team of lackluster investigators in hot pursuit, the Four Horsemen are on the move throughout the film, staging three live shows where money is stolen from a particular party and distributed to the audience. At one point, they turn on their benefactor Arthur Tressler, funneling millions out of his personal account and into the struggling accounts of the audience. The only genius thing in this particular heist, the second of three, is the way Agent Rhodes is taken down as he attempts to catch the horsemen off guard and arrest them on stage. Everything else, while creative and cool, is so highly unbelievable it ruins the fun – even if it is magic.
Soon, the terrifically clueless FBI under the command of Rhodes think they’ve managed to get ahead of the Four Horsemen only to be publically humiliated by Bradley’s crew of reality TV cameras when a safe they believe contains millions ends up chock-full of colorful animal balloons. Freeman’s Bradley character is brilliantly played, in my opinion, as most of his characters are – he’s meticulous in his rhythm of speech, the blinks of his eyes and the tone of his voice. You get the idea that Bradley might know more than he lets on, but he’s tough to read – his post-heist insight into how the Four Horsemen operate stand to make him millions on DVD’s and Rhodes squeezes every ounce of magical wisdom from his mind in order to, once again, get one step ahead of the horsemen, to no avail.
As if elaborate, scrupulous robberies weren’t enough, French director Leterrier pulls a car chase and a mano-a-mano scuffle from his staple bag of tricks. He also resorts to CGI for some of the horsemen’s onstage showmanship, which, in a movie all about misdirection – sort of leaves you feeling like the editors all out cheated rather than misguided.
The film moves so quickly, its mishaps and flaws barely register—the blockbuster equivalent of Fisher’s sleight-of-hand—Now You See Me fares best when simply relying on the crappy chemistry between its leads. Independently, the Oscar nominations between the all-star cast total in the double digits but unfortunately no one will be thanking the Academy anytime soon.
Were the heists well designed? You bet. Were they believable? Ehh. Was there intense, heart pounding action? Yep. And did it keep you guessing until the final two minutes? Most definitely. But, where Now You See Me falls irreparably flat is during the interactions between characters – it seems forced at times, and at others, comes off unrehearsed and undesirably sarcastic due to a lack of true believable content.
Atlas’ insistence that great tricks come down to what’s happening right in front of the audience’s faces will pay off with an absurd final twist so enormous it might be worth watching Now You See Me a second time just to see how it plays with foreknowledge.
Despite the poor acting, there is a brief scene shared by Freeman and Caine that’s entertaining, two old pros obviously having a good time going at it, but nothing crucial to the story. Eisenberg has a tough time selling himself as the enchanted leader of the group due to his quick, rude tongue and Zuckerberg after taste. Fisher’s role is somewhat wasted, as is Franco’s; their roles almost demand a new category of “supporting”.
But are the tricks any good? Sure. But they’re played out in a movie, which doesn’t exactly replicate the experience of a live performance. One critique I heard walking out of the theater was “it’s like ventriloquism on the radio” – hard to really judge.
In each of the heists, the Four Horsemen evoke a Robin Hood persona in that they take millions from the powerful and give it to the “poor” – in the end, we find out that each of the targeted millionaires are individually connected to the mastermind behind this elaborate scheme. The horsemen themselves don’t know the identity of their employer and we find out right along with them, literally minutes before the movie ends. Their year together, pulling off hypnosis in public, evading the FBI, stealing millions, staging car accidents (Franco has a somewhat brilliant “death”) and awkwardly interacting behind the stage curtain, has come to an end.
For all of the hocus-pocus and the elaborate set pieces and the talent of the people involved, Now You See Me all but begs moviegoers to complete the famous saying.
Now you don’t.