Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2016

Now You See Me 2
Zero stars

I'd have to think the alliance is going to frown on this

On the year's worst movie, tedious duplicity, and the purpose and power of showmanship

Now You See Me 2
Summit Entertainment
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Ed Solomon
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Lizzy Caplan, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Radcliffe, Sanaa Lathan and Michael Caine
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 9 minutes
June 10, 2016
Zero stars (out of four)

Now You See Me 2 is a celebration of its own incompetence. Here is a movie ostensibly (and accidentally) about its inability to pull off what it's trying to pull off, and yet it's strangely proud of itself for that fact. Like a toddler that attempts to do a cartwheel, immediately falls over, then gets up and takes a bow, expecting a standing ovation.

Filmmaking is often an act of film criticism, and that certainly applies to this movie - only the target of its criticism is itself. For two hours, it bends over backwards to make a point of everything it can't do, or won't do. Two hours of explaining - and re-explaining, and re-explaining again, and then adding other explanations on top of those explanations - all the things it's incapable of doing, all the tricks it isn't clever enough to pull off, all the storytelling maneuvers it hasn't the imagination or smarts to carry out.

We can add wanton laziness to its long list of cinematic sins, because the thing is, it really doesn't even try; its whole structure is to show us a whole lot of nothing, and then tell us everything. We watch a scene play out, and then it's immediately followed up by a character monologuing about what really happened. "It wasn't that, it was this."

It's not even misdirection; what we get is so much less elegant than that. And the most inexcusable part is, everyone in the audience is intrinsically game for something like this. We know exactly what we're watching - a story about con artists and illusionists, in which sleight-of-hand is the guiding principle. We know that everyone is, or might be, playing everyone else. In practically every scene, we know there's something going on that we're not yet privy to. We welcome it. And yet it can't even make the effort to indulge itself, to play around with the endless possibilities each elaborate setup presents. Now You See Me 2 is a movie about showmen, without any showmanship of its own. A movie about trickery that somehow has no actual tricks up its sleeve - at least not beyond the concept level. There's not a shred of visual wit to be found. Who's in charge of this shit?

Rarely have I seen a movie in such dire need of a director-as-performer. Jon M. Chu, fresh off Jem and the Holograms, has immersed himself in a world of magicians, hustlers, hypnotists, card sharks - all performers who direct our eyes and minds exactly where they want them to go, creating connections, suggestions, interpretations and hints with effortless skill. The characters in this movie (and its harmlessly dumb predecessor) aren't even top-shelf, as movie tricksters go, yet Chu still proves himself woefully unworthy of being in their presence. He is at once the world's worst magician and its least charming con man. If he came up to you in a pool hall, you'd sniff him out in a second.

His biggest, flashiest sequence involves our heroic Four Horsemen - played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan (who, in her introduction, makes meta-reference to her role as the token woman in the group in light of the not-really-explained absence of original star Isla Fisher) - stealing a highly advanced data-decryption chip. In what Chu surely considers his major centerpiece, the characters escape via a needlessly convoluted card-throwing routine during a security/pat-down procedure. The card (which has the stolen chip attached) changes hands constantly - one character tosses it to the next, and to the next, and to the next, each toss crazier than the last - which I suppose is meant to distract us from the fact that there is no reason whatsoever that the card needs to change hands this many times, if at all.

At any rate, the point of the scene is we're all supposed to be impressed by the characters' synchronicity - their talent! their precision! - in pulling this play off, except we're always aware it's just a stupid CGI card, which undermines the sleight-of-hand posturing. (The fact that special effects assist the actors/characters in executing a trick is not a problem - we wouldn't expect Eisenberg and Co. to become Ricky Jay in preparation for a movie role - but when the trick we're seeing is just pure editing and computer animation, in service of a routine that is likely impossible to actually achieve, it's hard to be impressed. Insulted is more like it.)

In lieu of ingenuity, or anything that might make any of this nonsense come alive, Chu's scenarios just sit there on the screen, like formless lumps of information. Even in scenes where there's any attempt at all to toy with our understanding of what we're watching (and there are plenty that don't even make that effort), Chu makes it all obvious to read - so we see the possible/probable switches, swaps, misdirects, hidden identities, double-crosses, red herrings - only to then insist on explaining them all moments later with lengthy expository speeches (detailing the secret to each trick, point by point) that reveal more about the film's contempt for its audience than about the larger game being played, or the motivations of anyone involved. I mean, it gets to all that, too - but only with more wordy explanations. Peaking behind the curtain has never been so dull.

An appropriate comparison here would be Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, which in its climax similarly relies on a structure that doubles back to explain things we weren't aware of the first time around. The difference is that it was all smartly conceived and masterfully choreographed. The setup left clear, deliberate holes and ambiguities; its twists and surprises were built around a late, subtle pivot in its point-of-view, which allowed us to be surprisingly in the dark as the true details of the heist revealed themselves. The execution was so seamless - single shots revealed more in that movie than any expositional speech does in this one - using graceful camera movements and edits to get everything across with beautiful efficiency, as opposed to Chu and screenwriter Ed Solomon's labored approach here.

This movie thinks it's doing the same thing as Ocean's Eleven. It is not. And along the way to not being Ocean's Eleven, it wastes an ace cast - including series newcomer Sanaa Lathan, under-utilized yet again, this time as Mark Ruffalo's boss in the FBI. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman sleepwalk through their paycheck roles (with looks in their eyes that seem to be asking each other, "When's Chris Nolan making another movie again?"), Eisenberg appears lost and disinterested, and only Harrelson - starring as his character's slimy twin brother in a performance that would be wretched if it weren't such a seemingly deliberate comment on the movie itself - seems to realize how awful this all is. Fisher had the right idea.

The film gets worse as it goes along, culminating in a ludicrous climactic Big Reveal in which Eisenberg is forced to rattle off one explanation after another for five minutes, like the host of the world's worst instructional video. And still the movie isn't satisfied. Still it hasn't yet exhausted its seemingly boundless capacity for tedious inanity. And so it offers us an asinine conclusion in which characters give us more five-minute monologues, this time clarifying the specific roles they played in this whole story (once again exposing the film's complete inability to weave that information into the telling of the story itself) and, for some bloody reason, disclosing a whole bunch of other personal-history details that have nothing to do with anything beyond the screenwriter's own poor excuse for emotional resolution. And all of this - all of this intelligence-insulting drivel - is punctuated by the film's constant "Look what I did!" preening, because even as it proudly testifies of its perpetual failure, it remains oblivious to its own stupidity. You did nothing, Now You See Me 2. You did less than nothing.

This movie can go straight to hell.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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