"Sometimes The Magic Works, Part 2"
The Slightest of Hands
Bullwinkle: Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!
Rocky: But that trick NEVER works!
The tagline for Now You See Me, the latest film by Louis Letterier (who brought to you the modern version of Clash of the Titans, a not too bad film, actually, as empty-headed gladiator-myth movies go) is "The closer you look, the less you see," and, even though that's supposed to be saying something about the power of illusion, it couldn't be more appropriate for the movie it's supposed to be selling. You'll get the most out of this movie if you're asleep during it.*
Better yet, don't get rooked into it, and do the opposite of the film's title and don't see it at all. Because there's movie-magic, where you feel the sense of wonder and amazement, and there's the kind that just makes you feel that you've been "taken." Now You See Me makes me feel like a rube.
And that's the mastery of marketing. Great cast, with a bunch of actors who've got taste and have done terrific things before...and James Franco's brother, Dave...so there must be something to this, right? I mean, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine,** Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent,*** Michael Kelly, and the Zombieland duo of Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. No slouches there.
But the movie is such a drab circling-camera edit-fest (it feels like it was shot on a Roomba) that you know you're being misled somewhere, and you're being made to not think about what's going on on-screen, because, ultimately it makes no sense whatsoever. The point of the movie is distraction, and there the movie succeeds quite well. It's so busy and flashy, you stop thinking and take in the swirling, swooping actors and camera moves, and let them wash over you...and your brain stops. It's only at the end that you realize that the movie is a white-rabbit and it's disappeared, if it even existed in the first place. Orson Welles said movie-making is smoke and mirrors, and there are plenty of mirrors here, but the result is pure smoke.
What's it about? Four street magicians Daniel (Eisenberg) card-sharp, Merrit (Harrelson) a mentalist, Henley (Isla Fisher) escape artist, and Jack (Franco) pick-pocket, all accomplished, all a little larcenous, are recruited by a mysterious presence (who has surreptitiously observed all of them disguised in a hoodie—what, they couldn't see the face?) to form a guerrilla magic team called "The Four Horsemen." They, after a jump of time, go from nothing to large coordinated shows, bankrolled by an insurance tycoon (Caine). The first, in Vegas, involves the seeming transportation of a French citizen to his bank in France, that results in the sucking of millions of euros out of its vault, and spraying it throughout the large theater crowd...as if by magic. This attracts the attention of the FBI in the form of agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Interpol's agent Alma Dray (Laurent), who pursue the clues and try to ascertain how they pulled off the heist. Along the way, they interview Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), a magic debunker, who has a vested interest in exposing the Horsemen for a series of buzz-kill videos and reality shows. He shows the agents how it was done, then stops there, being very cagey about what the next scam will be. As it turns out, it's in New Orleans, where Caine's insurance magnate tries to buy off Freeman to no avail.
At this point, you're wondering not about the "how," but the "why?" What's everybody's motivation in this? Freeman's stakes are relatively paltry—the group has just gotten started, who would care—so you begin to suspect he's behind it all. Caine's interest in unimaginable, as he's putting out a large outlay of disposable cash for events that have no residual value, and leave him open to accessory and fraud charges. And the agents' zeal is largely enigmatic (matching those of the Horsemen). What's everybody in this for, other than to propel the movie? It's a bit like The Sting (which had the guts to put the motivation up front) only skin-deep and with shallow surface-flash. Letterier and script-writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt provide no fore-thought, but just speed things up and turn on the pyrotechnics, so there's no time for questions and little room for answers, while the actors go through their paces with looks of ambivalence so as not to betray anything.
There's not that much to betray. Once everything has been revealed (save for the fate of the Horsemen), there's no satisfaction, only a feeling of emptiness and pointlessness ("Really? All that for that?") and then you begin to question everyone's behavior during the film, which makes no sense given the actions displayed throughout the movie. One almost thinks that the film might have multiple endings, depending on which cineplex you go to, so tenuous is the resolution and back-story. It doesn't bear close examination.
But then, we were warned. "The closer you look, the less you see."
And it has nothing, absolutely nothing up its sleeve.
Now You See Me is a Cable-Watcher.
* No Morgan Freeman jokes, please...
** Well, Michael Caine, he used to sign up for supermarket openings...
*** ...spent the whole movie wondering where I'd seen her before—Inglorious Basterds.