Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2013

Now You See Me

Cheap trick

Pull back the curtain of 'Now You See Me' and there's not much to see

Now You See Me
Summit Entertainment
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Mélanie Laurent, Dave Franco and Michael Caine
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Opened May 31, 2013
(out of four)

It goes without saying that Now You See Me will end with a Big Reveal. We expect this. For a film about a team of magicians trying to pull off a massive crime by way of an extravagant series of tricks illusions, there really isn't any other way.

A magician's performance of such an illusion is meant to impress and mystify. And when the curtain is pulled back, we're meant to marvel over the intricacy of the grand design. There are movies that work the same way - mysteries and puzzles that dazzle us with their complexity, and whose twists force us to reconsider the meanings and implications of what we've just seen.

Now You See Me attempts to do the same thing, and on those terms alone, it is an unmitigated failure. (We'll get to the ways it works a little later.) When its curtain is pulled back and we see what the big secret was and how it was done, it has the opposite of the intended effect.

Over the course of the film, we see some remarkable feats of trickery and misdirection; but what's striking about the final reveal is how much less impressive it makes, in retrospect, so much of what we've witnessed. The filmmakers - director Louis Leterrier and writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt - seem reasonably confident in the who, what and how of the big picture. But I can't help but assume they didn't fully think it through, particularly how the twists would reflect on both the characters and their (occasionally) thrilling exploits. Or maybe they just hoped we wouldn't try to do any thinking.

Ultimately, there's very little misdirection at all - or at least not the kind it's theoretically going for. Many of the film's attempts at deception boil down to blatant red herrings all too easy for us to snuff out. (There's one particularly egregious example.)

When all is uncovered, there's simply not much there - and it wasn't all that good a con job to begin with. Each uncovered detail is more underwhelming than the last. As its own cinematic magic trick, Now You See Me is much simpler than it seems, and much, much dumber than it wishes it were.

That being said, it's not so terrible as a breezy heist flick. I won't defend the movie on "just turn your brains off and enjoy it!" grounds (I hate that argument), but there's a graceful way Leterrier builds the story and stages the action. If nothing else, he nicely puts together a movie that would probably be pretty good if the script weren't so silly.

The film starts by introducing us to its four principal magicians, who are all working as one-man (or one-woman) operations until an anonymous figure brings them all together for the collective role of a lifetime. There's J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a snarky card shark; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), a death-defying illusionist; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), who pulls cheap tricks for tourists to distract from his petty thievery; and Merritt McKinley (Woody Harrelson), a once-famous (but still talented) mentalist.

Over the course of a year, the makeshift magic troupe - known as The Four Horsemen - rise to prominence and eventually to nationwide fame when they seemingly pull off a heist of a Parisian bank during one of their shows in Vegas, using some sort of transportation device. This brings them to the attention of the authorities, both federal and international. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is tasked with handling the case alongside Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).

They're not the only ones on the Four Horsemen's trail, either. Enter Thaddeus Bradley, a professional debunker who specializes in exposing the tricks of the magicians' trade. And as even further evidence that the studio really wanted to class things up as much as possible, we also get Michael Caine, who gets to dust off his old Heavy persona as the menacing billionaire who bankrolls the Four Horsemen's operation, only to get swindled by them in what is probably the Swiss Cheesiest of the film's narrative contrivances.

But every member of the cast is game, and it's their enthusiasm - coupled with Leterrier's capable direction - that carry Now You See Me as far as it can go. But ultimately a movie like this pretty much has to be judged by whether or not it pulls off its trick. There's a point in the movie where Eisenberg's character says the first rule of magic is to always be the smartest guy in the room. Let's just say that if the film's three screenwriters were in a room full of viewers, they would come out on the short end of that stick.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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