Friday, May 31, 2013

Deft Illusion: Now You See Me

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's the thing about magicians: They're kind of insufferable. Either they take themselves waaaay too seriously, or they're irreverent, but come off as thinking they're smarter than the rest of the world. (OK. Maybe there are only two magicians who fall into the latter category.)

And here's the thing about movies about magicians: Magic loses its, well, magic, when it isn't seen live. The minute TV or movies come into play, there's none of the "Wow! How did they just do that?!" wonder because so much can easily be done via editing, camera trickery, or just plain special effects.

Now You See Me is filled with insufferable magicians, and no real magic. And yet...I kind of liked it.

Maybe I should qualify that. Mark Ruffalo is in it, and I will like, at least a little bit, anything he's in. I can't help it. I'm flesh and blood, people! But he's not the only thing likable about the movie.

The other things are, alas, not the four magicians at the center. When the movie begins, they are the fairly well-known street magician, J. Daniel Atlas, (Jesse Eisenberg); a washed up "mentalist," (Woody Harrelson); a nightclub magician whose act includes a tank of piranhas, (Isla Fisher); and a pickpocket and break-in artist who deflects from his crimes by doing well-worn tricks, like bending spoons with his mind, (Dave Franco).

They're brought together by a mysterious stranger, and before you can say abracadabra, they've become The Four Horsemen (because The Three Horsemen and One Horsewoman was too cumbersome, I guess), a magic act performing for a huge crowd in Las Vegas.

During the course of this show, they (appear to) rob a bank by teleporting an audience member into a bank vault in Paris, opening an air shaft in the vault, that then sucks all the money out of it and into the Las Vegas theater, where it rains down on the audience.

Illusion? Or actual robbery? The fact that a vault of money in Paris does indeed go missing the same time the show is going on leads the FBI--and Interpol!--to believe the magicians--somehow--robbed the bank, and they're taken into custody, where they are questioned by an FBI agent reluctantly assigned to the case, (Mark Ruffalo), and a French Interpol agent, (Melanie Laurent), who, well, kinda digs magic.

Also in the audience is legendary magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, (Morgan Freeman), who hopes to expose the magicians' secrets, and make a ton of money in the process, because apparently there's a huge market for magic debunking DVDs.

Alas, the FBI doesn't have enough to hold The Four Horseman, and they're set free to move on to their next act. But not without the agents and debunkers hot on their trail.

Now, there's some fun to be had in the moments where the Horsemens' tricks are explained, because they're clever set-ups. But there's a bit of frustration in knowing that much of it could never actually be done in real life. And when it comes to their stage tricks, it's all heavily CG reliant, and therefore not really very magical.

But it you cast that aside, and concentrate on the caper aspect of it all, it becomes more enjoyable, because, let's face it. The robberies pulled off in an average caper movie could never really happen in real life, either. It's just fun seeing how a big, elaborate crime can work in the world of movie make-believe. And if the audience in the preview screening is any indication, people love--to the point of screaming about it--when movie magicians give tons of money to their fake audiences.

And while the magicians are the heroes of the movie, they're not actually in it that much. I don't know if it's because trying to give real depth and personality to four magicians is just too cumbersome a task to attempt for a caper movie, or because the personalities they are given are, for the most part, too annoying to showcase for long.

Instead, more time is spent with the agents trying ensnare them, and while the growing relationship between the FBI and Interpol agents is, admittedly, a bit hokey at times, Ruffalo and Laurent are good enough actors that the eye-rolling was minimal.

I'll give no spoilers, but it's obvious that Now You See Me wants to be one of those, "WHAT?? I need to watch that whole thing again, now!" movies, but frankly, I don't think its tricks would hold up to a second viewing. Instead, take it for what it is, a simple but deft illusion that, were you to see it done again, would lose what little magic it had.

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