By Preston Wilder
There’s a scene in Now You See Me where FBI agent Mark Ruffalo and his Interpol sidekick Melanie Laurent are talking about magicians. They exploit people’s gullibility, says Mark disapprovingly – but Melanie sticks up for the conjurors and illusionists, meanwhile trying to learn some elementary card tricks with the help of a manual. Pick a card, she tells Mark, then delights him by guessing his card (ooh, magic!). Look at the smile on your face, she says; does it really matter if magicians exploit people, when they can put that kind of awed, amazed smile on their faces?
The same might be said of this film, which is pretty bad by any objective standard – lacks focus, falls apart in the second half – and exploits our fascination with magicians (not to mention our relief at finding a summer movie with no monsters, superheroes, robots or aliens), yet will put a smile on the face of most viewers by virtue of being fast, twisty and enjoyably preposterous. The cast helps too, not just stubbled Ruffalo and willowy, big-eyed Laurent but also Jesse Eisenberg, who talks very fast with a touch of the dazzling condescension he displayed in The Social Network, and of course Woody Harrelson who brings John Malkovich levels of demented originality to any part these days, only substituting all-American hustle for Malkovich’s air of effete decadence. Not to mention Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman…
Jesse, Woody, Isla and boyish up-and-comer Dave Franco are four magicians who join forces in a Vegas act called ‘The Four Horsemen’, having previously been summoned to a meeting by an unseen benefactor – and Now You See Me is smartest in its first 10 minutes, when it introduces our quartet of heroes. Actually it’s smartest in the first two minutes, when Eisenberg flips through a deck of cards and asks a woman in the audience to pick one card without telling him what it is. We in the cinema audience play along, of course – and we might think we’ve picked a card at random but in fact the magician pauses just a nanosecond longer on that card (or maybe it’s its placing in the deck, I don’t know), and we get rumbled just as surely as the woman in the movie. It’s a simple trick, but still a lesson in the hidden similarities that magicians prey on – and the fact that we’re all much more transparent than we think we are.
If the film had stayed on that level of cleverness it might’ve challenged The Prestige, a complex and profound film about magic. Alas, within an hour we’re watching fist-fights and car chases, and asking inappropriate questions like ‘Don’t the cops always check DNA if they can’t identify a corpse after someone dies?’. Worst of all, the four magicians are almost forgotten; we barely even see them outside their shows – which turn out to be camouflaged heists – and when we do it’s just brittle banter, the characters turned into ciphers. The FBI, meanwhile, behave so stupidly it’s unreal (or perhaps all too real). What’s the best thing to do when you realise that your phone’s been bugged, but the people who bugged it don’t know that you know? Use your advantage, perhaps? Do a bit of creative misdirection? Or just find out where they live and go in with guns blazing? If you answered (c), you apparently have a promising future in law enforcement.
Magic is too fascinating a subject for this sloppy entertainment – and the film doesn’t even get the magic right, at least not all the time. Sometimes it just plain cheats (notably the caption reading “Paris, At the Same Moment”), which is obviously naughty. Other times it’ll show something so outlandish it just seems impossible, offering no explanation except the implicit catch-all that magicians can do anything. There’s a lot of exposition – the plot just stops so characters can explain about “Lionel Shrike”, or “The Eye of Horus” – and a final twist that upends the whole movie, blithely un-bothered by the audience’s cries of ‘But how…?”
In short, Now You See Me isn’t much of a film – yet it’s fast-paced, the camera keeps swooping frantically, and a good cast get to show off their presence (as in Ocean’s Eleven, the seductive charisma of magicians is really a variation on the seductive charisma of movie stars). “Come in closer,” urges Eisenberg in the opening lines, but in fact you’d be advised to do the opposite. Watch Now You See Me too closely, and it might be exposed for the ramshackle thing that it is. Step back a little, on the other hand, watch from an amused, forgiving distance, and you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
DIRECTED BY Louis Leterrier
STARRING Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher
US/France 2013 115 mins