Now You See Me arrives blockbuster bright and has no shame. It’s crazy with gloss and it’s a lot more recklessly silly than your average Michael Bay film. It’s been variously described – by its detractors – as stupid, overcomplicated and nonsensical. Well, yes but such serious and severe estimations seem beside the point. Or to put it another way, indeed to phrase it in the parlance of the movie business, Now You See Me seems to me to be smart 'product’. Please take care to note that such an observation is not intended as a thing of praise, but an apt description of it as a movie experience. It’s also a kind of warning.
a case study in the school of filmmaking that privileges ingenious trickery over all other considerations
It doesn’t have a subject matter exactly, which these days seems a clever move, because the people who are agreeing to finance a picture like this seem sold on the notion that an oversized portion of the movie going – and torrenting – public are too impatient for such old-fashioned values as 'story’.
I guess the essential points are these: it delivers colour and movement, visits Paris, Vegas, New York and New Orleans, lasts nearly two hours, and for what it’s worth, I hardly noticed the time. The film was written by Edward Ricourt, Ed Solomon, and Boaz Yakin. They’ve made a script that’s like a case study in the school of filmmaking that privileges ingenious trickery over all other considerations; the narrative is packed with tropes beloved by suspense fans – reversals, misdirection, false identity – all wrapped up in a frolicking tone intended to drive out any feelings of actual threat and menace. The premise is a riff on both the con-man flick, like, say, The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), and 'the nice guys who rob bad guys’ heist movie tradition, like Ocean’s 11 (Steven Soderbergh, 2001). You might pitch it as Inception without the pretentious dream stuff but with, you know, magicians as the heisters.
The nominal setting then, is the world of magic. We are reminded constantly that this is not a real place but a sort of parallel universe where nothing is what it seems. Indeed, the dialogue – and there is a lot of talk – is full of philosophical fluff about the difference between an illusion and real magic.
There’s absolutely nothing magical or especially imaginative about the way the script and director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans) lay out the action. Now You See Me follows the heist movie playbook step by step; the structure slopes through the well-rehearsed movie moves of recruitment, rehearsal, robbery, escape and pursuit, with a last minute twist.
The plot has four magicians – each with a unique skill – brought together by a mysterious benefactor. Their Las Vegas act is called The Four Horsemen, which is hugely popular (think of David Copperfield on a stage set that’s part Pink Floyd/part Andrew Lloyd Webber and you get the idea.) But the way Leterrier shoots this stuff is less than devastating, let alone apocalyptic: the camera swoops, swings, dives and races around the arena stage in the same meaningless way network directors cover those ever-popular reality TV talent shows.
During their big act, The Four Horseman manage to pull off what seems like a genuine magic trick – which suggests a conjuring that transcends space and time – where they manage to steal a few million Euros from a Paris bank and then have the loot rain down on the Las Vegas audience like so much confetti.
The Four Horseman, who are played by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, are arrested and interrogated by FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, who professes no knowledge of magic, real or otherwise. Assisting Ruffalo in his enquiries is an attractive blond French Interpol agent played by Melanie Laurent. (In a movie like this, are there any other kind?) They aren’t characters so much as surrogates for the audience’s thought process, which is concerned exclusively with working out the puzzling action.
The heist turns out to be trickery. The magicians are let off. That provides the set-up for the rest of the movie; Ruffalo is convinced that they are real crooks and he mounts a massive operation to ensnare them. Morgan Freeman turns up as a magician-debunker who tutors Ruffalo’s sceptical G-man in the tricks of the magic trade.
It’s fun to think that Now You See Me’s dedication to a kind of thematic emptiness is some sort of elaborate pun on way the science and showmanship of Illusion actually works. We learn that the key to magic is diverting the audience away from the mechanics of the 'magic act’ by having them look closely at some spectacle; meanwhile, the real trick goes unnoticed. Indeed, the only thing that’s going in this movie is an elaborate form of revenge. But there’s no 'real trick’ to the movie. It’s all diversion, no pay-off.
Still, it does have some interesting quirks. One is that the script references the populist hostility post-GFC directed toward financial institutions; The Four Horsemen construct their act as one out to rob the rich and give to the poor. And this is the odd thing; most of the screen time is spent trapped inside Ruffalo’s cat and mouse chase. We don’t get to know Harrelson and his cohorts very well. Which is a pity because they are quite fun to be around.
Instead, the film ends up a purely mechanical exercise with Leterrier endowing the film’s dizzying set piece chase scenes and punch ups with a lot of energy, and leaving the cast to stand around and impersonate charisma.
It’s a board game movie, where emotional involvement is a burden, and close attention its own reward. Fun is an option.