June 20, 2013

NOW YOU SEE ME Is A Bit Of Forgettable Fun


"Cheap and meaningless, yes.  But not time consuming."
This is one of my favorite magician stories ever:  In April of 2006, David Copperfield and two of his assistants were walking to their tour bus when some teenagers held them up at gunpoint and demanded that they hand over their valuables.  The assistants turned over their cash and cellphones, but Copperfield claimed he didn't have anything to give, turning out his pockets to prove they were empty.  In reality the magician was carrying his wallet, passport and cellphone, but he was able to deceive the gunmen using his considerable sleight of hand skills.

That's right, David Copperfield used magic to thwart crime.

It's seven years later and now Copperfield is on the flip side of the coin, using his talents as a stage magician to design the onscreen tricks for a quartet of larcenous illusionists in Now You See Me.  That certainly lends the movie a little bit of magic street cred and the love and respect for the days of marquee magic acts is apparent throughout.  (Early on there's a Vegas magic show with probably two thousand people in attendance, none of whom are your grandmother.)  Unforunately, the film is the perfect example of what I call a "teflon movie."  It's entertaining enough while you're watching it but makes almost no emotional impact and immediately upon conclusion it slides right off your brain.  No muss, no fuss.

There are a lot of things working against Louis Leterrier's latest.  First of all, the reason that movies about heists or magic always enthrall audiences is that they implicitly goad the viewer into solving the puzzle before the film explains it all in the end.  How will the theives get away with money?  What is the magician doing behind all the smoke and mirrors?  When your movie is about a heist being pulled by magicians, that challenge is instantly amplified, which means that you better have one hell of a twist and/or reveal when it's all said and done.  Unfortunately, each and every turn here is obviously set up way in advance (except for the Paris bank vault bit, which is silly and convoluted beyond measure) so that when the physics-defying CGI curtain* is eventually pulled back, it feels perfunctory.  This isn't a magic eye poster where the audience makes a clever discovery hiding in plain sight.  This is a connect-the-dots picture meant for children under seven, where the picture is obvious even before you draw the lines.

The film also never really delivers on the premise they've been marketing - a team of magicians team up and use their various skills in order to pull off daring and righteous acts of thievery.  Part of the problem is that, while the Four Horsemen (the name of their stage act) are acting according to a complex master plan, they didn't actually come up with it.  They're all summoned together by a mysterious figure in a hoodie and given all the materials and blueprints they'll need to accomplish their mission, and then they follow their instructions to the letter with no interest in who's pulling their strings or why.  In fact, the movie skips from the moment they're handed the plan to a year later when they finally start to execute it over the course of three large scale magic shows.  I think there's a better movie to be had set in that missing year, with four strangers struggling to get along and perhaps rooting out their mysterious benefactor, all while using magic skills to one up each other and secure themselves a big payday.  Instead, the four all play nice and they obediently follow their instruction manuals, and with no real conflict the magicians become almost incidental characters. Each gets a cool introduction and their big stage shows are theatrical and entertaining but otherwise they are barely present in the rest of the movie. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson each get entertaining interrogation scenes when the team is taken into FBI custody and Dave Franco actually gets the best scene in the movie, using flash paper, throwing cards, sleight of hand and misdirection to beat the tar out of some FBI agents. And what does Isla Fisher do?  Well, to paraphrase my wife, "She looks hot and giggles."  But all four work very well together and manage to keep the audience entertained despite their dramatically inert story, further convincing me that in some parallel universe there's a much better version of this movie.

Without any tension between the magicians or a puzzle for them to actively solve they become dull, static characters.  Therefore, the majority of screentime is devoted to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent as the respective agents of the FBI and Interpol who are hot on the Horsemen's trail and intent on preventing their next heist.  These two are barely present in any of the ads and trailers, yet they are the actual protagonists of the movie. They've got mysteries to solve and bad guys to catch, all with healthy doses of both romance and distrust between them. While the chemistry between Ruffalo and Laurent certainly leaves something to be desired, their story works well enough on its own.  But it's still a bit of a letdown if, like me, you walk into the theater expecting a movie about clever magicians using their deception skills to outsmart the cops and pull off righteous crimes and instead you get a movie about a harried FBI agent who's constantly one step behind a group of smarmy thieves with a penchant for theatricality and card tricks.  The marketing feels like a total bait and switch - like when Sony convinced everyone that Looper was a cat & mouse chase film where a young hitman hunts his older self, only to get a smart and emotional film about fate, perspective and sacrifice.  (Obviously that one turned out for the better.)

Michael Caine is also on hand to pick up a paycheck while wearing expensive suits and Skyping with Conan O'Brien, while Morgan Freeman actually looks to be having fun as a scarf and ascot wearing professional magic debunker.  There's an obvious sequel set up at the end (Now You Don't!) and if such a film does miraculously come to pass, I'd expect to see Freeman back as the villain.  (That may sound like a spoiler, but it's really not.)  Letterier's over-reliance on digital effects is more than a little maddening, making the whole thing come off just a little bit too slick.  It's hard to get invested in a magic movie where the tricks are presented in ways that simply couldn't exist in reality.

I suspect Now You See Me will disappear from theaters soon enough, but if you've been meaning to go see it, don't worry.  Some Saturday afternoon two years from now, you'll stumble upon it playing on FX and you'll think to yourself, "Oh yeah, I remember this movie.  What the hell, I've got time to kill."  And you'll eat a sandwich and enjoy Woody Harrelson's silly mentalist routine and Dave Franco's playing card-jitsu.

And then a few hours later, when someone asks you what you did that afternoon, you'll struggle to come up with an answer.


*I'm not kidding.  There's a digital cloak that gets cartoonishly swirled around people and stage rigs multiple times.  It's egregious and awful.

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Title: Now You See Me
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Isla Fischer, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Laurent
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Regal Fenway