Review: ‘Now You See Me’ is a bad magic trick but a decent caper

When you show a character onscreen doing something that is supposed to be genuine magic, the use of special effects and camera trickery is perfectly acceptable and even understood as a given. When you’re showing a character onscreen who is performing stage magic, something meant to be an illusion performed for a live crowd, I find it far more problematic when I don’t believe what I’m looking at. “Now You See Me” is energetic, well-cast, and very, very narratively busy, but it fails the most basic test for me: the magic is a bust, so nothing else matters.

I’m sure having David Copperfield consult and build things for you is a great anecdote for the press day, and they get the trappings of stage magic right, especially as it pertains to Las Vegas. But there’s not a moment in this movie where it doesn’t feel like a movie, like everything is heightened and slightly ridiculous and impossible, and for that reason, I find myself less able to engage with the genial caper film that uses magic more as set dressing than anything else.

Louis Leterrier has never met a crane shot he didn’t like. At one point in the film, I wondered if he accidentally forgot to rent anything except a crane. He handles the action well enough, but what he doesn’t demonstrate as a director here is any sort of handle on the smaller moments. I have no idea what Leterrier would do with a drama, and it feels to me like he gets nervous shooting any sort of personal human moment and he has to crank it up, keep it BIG. As a result, “Now You See Me” feels sort of like it’s being shouted at you.

That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. I wouldn’t say that. I think if you watch this trailer…

… you know exactly what you’re getting. They are not lying to you. That is the movie. It is entertaining. It plays entirely on the surface. Its “big game” is telegraphed from the very start, but watching the pieces fall into place is agreeable enough. It’s the sort of film that I would have a hard time getting worked up about one way or another. I had a decent time watching it, and if you ask me about it in August, I may not remember a single detail.

The movie unfolds at a gallop. The opening introduces us to J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), each of them a very different type of performer, each of them in their element. There’s a mysterious figure in a hoodie watching them, and they each receive an invitation to a specific place at a specific time on a specific day. When they go, they realize they’ve all been summoned by someone else, and that someone has left them plans for a series of shows that will change all of their careers.

Six months later, we see their first show in Vegas, and it closes with an illusion that involves sending a man instantaneously to his bank’s vault in Paris and stealing three million euros in front of an audience. The stunt catches the attention of the FBI and Interpol, and it also makes the newly formed “Four Horsemen” nationally famous overnight. The rest of the film is a protracted cat-and-mouse in which the four magicians are pursued by Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) while their efforts are, at least at first, underwritten by millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The other wrinkle in things comes courtesy of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former stage magician who makes his living now by debunking the work of others, revealing secrets of stagecraft like some cross between the Masked Magician and the Amazing Randi.

Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are both amiable enough in the film, but they’re not given much to do. Fisher is uber-cute and Franco has one big action scene, but otherwise, they’re in the film because “The Four Horsemen” sounds a lot better than “The Two Horseman”. Ultimately, Harrelson and Eisenberg get most of the best lines in the film, and they’re the ones constantly goading Ruffalo, who seems annoyed and frustrated by pretty much ever conversation he has with everyone about magic. Laurent, assigned to the case on behalf of the French bank that was robbed, is fascinated by the techniques on display, and she and Ruffalo have a strong, sweet chemistry. If nothing else, maybe this will lead to another film starring the two of them, and that seems like it could only be a good thing.

As the film twists and turns and doubles back and misdirects, I have to admit that I was pretty much ahead of it the entire time because of how hard they punch some of the exposition at the top of the movie. My guess is very few people will be surprised by the resolution as scripted by Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt, but I suspect most casual audiences will be satisfied. It’s pretty much the only resolution it could be, and they underline the idea of these magicians playing Robin Hood hard enough to give the film a hint of wish fulfillment that may connect with audiences who would like to see certain people and institutions punished these days. I’m disappointed that the emphasis is on “impossible caper,” though, and less on “movie about magic.” I still think “The Prestige” is the great movie about stage magic because the film’s very structure is taken from the rhythms of stage magic, and the entire film is thematically about magic and the people who give their lives to it. “Now You See Me” is a stick-it-to-the-man action comedy, and magic is the thing they use to sort of rev it up.

This might be the most disposable film of the summer, and as long as you’re not looking for anything deeper, it’s fine. But the closer you look, the less there is, and ultimately, there’s nothing real about it.

“Now You See Me” opens tomorrow.