I’m exhausted, folks. Completely burnt out. Today marks the end of my second straight term in Anatomy and Physiology (my third, really, but who’s counting?), and I’m in desperate need of a break. So I may as well relieve all the stress of finals in the best way I know how: Writing about movies.
Now You See Me is a movie that I tried getting around to a couple of weeks ago, but I had to bow out due to scheduling difficulties. Based on the middling reception and the disappointing box office performance, I figured it was for the best. But then one of my correspondents came back with a very positive recommendation, and the talent involved still had me very curious. In the end, I decided to go back and give the film a chance.
I’m honestly glad I did. The film might have been deeply, deeply flawed, but I’m glad I did.
The film opens with a fifteen-minute prologue to introduce four street magicians. Their de facto leader is J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a fast talker who uses his magic skills to charm women into bed. There’s also his former assistant (Isla Fisher, playing a character inexplicably named Henley Reeves), who’s graduated to being a seductive escape artist. They meet up with Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), formerly a world-famous psychic and hypnotist until the IRS brought him low. Rounding out the crew is Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a young street rat who’s equally gifted at picking pockets and picking locks.
Over the course of the prologue, we watch as the four are brought together by tarot cards slipped to them by some mysterious figure in a hoodie. I have mixed feelings about this intro. On the one hand, I get how the film wanted to establish the characters as solo acts before showing them as a group. On the other hand, those fifteen minutes might have been used to show more conflict among the group, getting the point across that these are four headstrong solo artists by nature who are forced to work as a team for unknown reasons.
Furthermore, I think it would have added so much more mystery to these characters if we had no idea who they were, where they came from, or what brought them together. Hell, the movie outright shows us that there’s a fifth character pulling the strings. That’s nowhere near as interesting as merely floating the possibility that these four magicians aren’t working alone, or gradually building up to the reveal that there was another mastermind at work this whole time. Hell, the movie could have fooled everyone — the audience included — into thinking that there was a fifth member, only to show that it was a red herring and the magicians were running the show all along! So much potential wasted, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, cut to a year later. Our former street magicians — now called “The Four Horsemen” — have secured the funding of a multi-millionaire named Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). With his sponsorship, the Horsemen are entertaining sold-out crowds in Las Vegas. And in full view of a massive paying audience, the Horsemen recruit a seemingly random guy to teleport through space and time to rob a bank in Paris. Yes, the money in Paris is somehow miraculously gone.
If I may pause the recap again for a moment, I’d like to point out one of the very first shots in the Las Vegas sequence. I’m specifically referring to that long swooping shot through the whole theater. I’m normally a fan of long continuous shots, but that one annoyed me right from the get-go. The shot moved so quickly over so many directions that you’d think the filmmakers were trying to call attention to their own camera. Multiple times in this film, there were shots that swooped around so quickly that I’m amazed I didn’t get whiplash. Between the obnoxious swerving shots, the shaky-cam abuse, and the occasional spotlight flashing directly into the camera, the cinematography is a fucking mess from start to finish.
That said, you can imagine my surprise to find that this film had not one, but two credited directors of photography. And one of them was Larry Goddamn Fong. That news really disappointed me. The guy’s done some amazing work for Zack Snyder, and I understand that he’s a really cool guy in person (he’s also an accomplished magician in his own right, I might add). I can only assume that J.J. Abrams’ lens flare fetish has beaten some of the talent out of Fong, though I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. Then again, there’s more than enough blame to share with Mitchell Amundsen, who’s perhaps most notable for his frequent collaborations with one Michael Bay.
As long as I’m on the subject of the visuals, I may as well talk about the CGI. Here’s the thing: Stage magic is awesome precisely because it’s all practical. It’s all about selling an illusion, which is far more difficult when there aren’t any film editors or CGI animators waiting backstage to work their own kind of magic. As such, if a film is going to portray the world’s greatest stage magic act, it had better make damn sure to have the best CGI that Hollywood can offer. And it doesn’t. The Las Vegas bank heist, for example, features CGI and editing so blatantly fake that it completely ruins the illusion. More than that, it’s just plain lazy — why would the filmmakers bother to actually create stage illusions when they could just CGI them in later?
Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to suspension of disbelief. You have to pretend that the CGI effects in this movie are real, just as you would with any other movie. If that’s not a dealbreaker, let’s get back to the story.
The international bank heist naturally attracts the attention of law enforcement. The case is assigned to FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who’s forced to work with Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie “Fuck Your Oscars” Laurent). They take the Four Horsemen into custody, though of course they don’t have a legal leg to stand on. After all, it’s not like law enforcement can prove that they robbed a bank at all — much less how — without admitting some level of belief in magic. As such, the Four Horsemen are released for lack of evidence and proceed to a series of escalating magical heists.
The film’s promotional material would have you believe that this is a global game of cat-and-mouse. This would be a lie. In truth, it’s not even a contest.
The Four Horsmen are diabolically clever bastards. They use psychology, innovation, sleight of hand, disguises, and a phenomenal gift for strategy to get their way out of any situation. That isn’t even getting started on all the magical and technological gimmickry in their bag of tricks. For God’s sake, they have a bona fide hypnotist on their team. They could make anyone help them in any way without ever even realizing it!
Law enforcement, on the other hand, are a bunch of knuckle-dragging morons. The FBI is absolutely insistent on treating this group like a gang of common criminals, none more so than Rhodes. It’s frankly rather pathetic. The Horsemen keep outsmarting Rhodes at every turn, yet he flat-out refuses to even try and understand their game. No matter how many times the Horsemen make him look like a clown, and no matter how many times the other characters outright call him a fucking moron (I’m paraphrasing, but that really does happen multiple times in the picture), Rhodes keeps on staying stupid. Disgraceful.
At this point, those who’ve actually seen the movie will remind me that Rhodes finally wises up roughly 10 minutes from the end. I don’t care. That still leaves about 100 minutes when he’s a clueless imbecile. In fact, I’d argue that Rhodes’ last-minute revelation only reinforces the point that law enforcement never had a chance to begin with. This was a pathetically unfair and one-sided conflict from the outset, plain and simple.
Of course, none of Rhodes’ FBI colleagues (one of them played by Common, of all people) are much better. They all blindly charge ahead, never stopping to think for one second that maybe they’re playing right into the Horsemens’ hands (because of course they are). It seems like Alma is the only one who takes the Horsemen seriously as magicians, though she’s of course no help in the grand scheme of things. In fact, her characterization was pathetically sloppy from first to last.
We’re given a vague impression that Alma likes magic, though we’re never given a concrete reason as to what she likes about it or why. Her attitude toward magic is emblematic of the movie’s overarching theme of faith and belief, which is so wishy-washy and half-baked I can barely bring myself to call it a story point. Of course, it also doesn’t help that the movie puts so much effort into suggesting that Alma is the Fifth Horseman, so of course she has to be totally mysterious. As to whether she is or not, I won’t spoil that here. I’ll only say that the film puts so much emphasis on her being the figure behind the curtain, which should be answer enough.
Unfortunately, a similar problem ensnares Morgan Freeman, here playing a famous magic debunker who serves entirely as the film’s voice of exposition. In fact, Thaddeus Bradley is so inconsequential to the overall plot and his dialogue is so crowded with exposition that he reminds me of Freeman’s character from Oblivion. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Freeman retire to work solely as a voice-over actor. And honestly, I’d be okay with that.
Then there’s Michael Caine, whose character at least has the drama of being a rich and powerful man who gets hoodwinked by the Horsemen. This is a role that Caine could play in his sleep, but at least his character has some measure of impact on the plot. Plus, it was great to see Caine and Freeman act off each other like the legends they are, but I’ll get back to the cast in a minute.
Before I discuss the cast in depth, I have to talk about this film’s laughable attempts at romance. The movie tries to push a romance arc between Rhodes and Alma, but one is such an idiot and the other is so ill-defined that it flat doesn’t work. The other romance arc is between Atlas and Henley, but the two of them get so little time to explore the feelings they may or may not have that the whole angle is DOA.
So with all of these complaints against the movie, what made it worth watching? Two things.
First among them is the cast. Ruffalo may have been playing a total idiot, but his screen presence makes the character tough to completely hate. Ruffalo is clearly putting his best into this picture, which in turn makes it look like Rhodes is doing his damnedest, and it’s hard to hate someone who’s trying so hard to do something right.
Similarly, Laurent may have gotten stuck with a cypher of a character, but she’s so impossibly charming that she lights up the screen. It really speaks volumes that their characters had no right to be in any kind of a relationship, yet Laurent and Ruffalo somehow have enough chemistry to make the stupid romance subplot watchable. Not enough to make it work, I grant you, but enough to make it watchable.
Then there’s Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. These guys are at the stage in their careers when they can do anything. They don’t even have to be in-character, they could elevate anything they’re in just by playing themselves. Caine does a wonderful job playing an antagonist, though it certainly helps that Tressler is an antagonist we have some reason to sympathize with. As for Freeman, he simply radiates so much intelligence and charisma that you could instantly believe he’s a world-famous magic expert with millions of DVD sales to his name. And of course, they both have such marvelous and iconic voices.
Last but not least, we have the Four Horsemen. I’ll admit that Eisenberg isn’t really doing anything new here, essentially playing his old Mark Zuckerberg persona if that character turned his intellect toward crime instead of Facebook. But before you bash Eisenberg for rehashing his same old schtick, remember that his “same old schtick” got him an Oscar nomination. And a well-deserved one at that. Plus, this version of the character has magic and chases and elaborate heists to keep things energetic and interesting, but I’ll get back to the action later.
Moving on to his old Zombieland co-star, Woody Harrelson is of course in top form as the group’s resident mentalist. Harrelson has a unique kind of smartass persona that does his role all kinds of favors, especially in those rare moments when his powers and his narcissistic confidence fail him. Harrelson conveys a very special blend of intelligence and sleaze, such that it’s kind of scary to think that someone so smart could be so amoral.
(Full disclosure: No, I haven’t seen Natural Born Killers yet. It’s in my pile, I swear.)
As for Isla Fisher, this role called for someone who could go from brainless bimbo to whip-smart seductress at the drop of a hat, and Fisher delivers better than I might have given her credit for. Her career’s been on a huge upswing lately, and deservedly so. I don’t think Fisher has really hit her stride yet, but I hope I’m there to see it when she does.
Speaking of up-and-coming talents, there’s Dave Franco. You might only know him as James Franco’s brother (if that), but that’s going to change in a few years, mark my words. I’ve seen the guy in a few movies now, but never with this much confidence or screen presence. It also bears mentioning that Franco gets a fight scene with Ruffalo, in which the former actor’s character uses tricks and illusions to fight off Rhodes. That whole fight scene was delightfully presented. It was easily one of the most impressive scenes in the movie, and it really speaks volumes that Franco could hold his own against a seasoned pro like Ruffalo in such a sequence.
This brings me to the second great strength of this movie: The plot. Yes, there are a few noticeable plot holes and some story threads that go nowhere. I won’t even get started on the film’s “Eye of Horus” crap. We’ve also got extended sequences of exposition, though the editing and Morgan Freeman’s voice-over certainly help sugar-coat those bitter pills.
The important thing is that this narrative was great about keeping me on my toes. For every predictable moment that came, there was a fiendishly clever twist to present some wonderful surprise. I was always kept guessing about precisely what was going to happen and how. It certainly helps, of course, that the Four Horsemen are such intelligent and charismatic characters with fantastic abilities that they use in visually interesting ways.
The Horsemens’ unpredictable nature elevated the action scenes as well, of course. Even in the middle of a chase scene, the Horsemen are working and succeeding in their efforts to flim-flam Rhodes. And somehow, the presentation never gets old.
I can find it in my heart to recommend Now You See Me, but that recommendation comes with some heavy caveats. The camerawork is terrible, the attempts at romance and thematic depth are pitiful, and the conflict of “magical outlaws vs. mundane law enforcement” is one-sided enough to be a classic curb stomp. Even so, the cast is simply too talented to be ignored. They elevate the material, though it certainly helps that the heist plot is twisty-turny enough to hold attention for two hours.
The movie may not be particularly deep, and it fell visibly short of some goals. Still, it was a creative story that I had fun watching, and that’s enough for me.