Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Illusions Of Originality, Realities Of Disappointment: The Illusionist

The Good: Moments of plot, Moments of acting, Special effects
The Bad: Light on character, Predictable, Derivative, Inconsistent accents
The Basics: In The Illusionist, which is filmed big, the viewer waits for something remarkable and instead finds something exceptionally common.

It was not my idea to watch The Illusionist, but out of the choices I was presented, it seemed like the best option of the bunch. Having now watched it, I wonder what I was missing by not seeing Quills. The Illusionist suffers from a death of a thousand cuts, but fundamentally it was unworthy of recommendation for its lack of originality. Neil Burger essentially rewrites The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) as a love story and it's fairly blah.

Eisenheim, a young illusionist, has exceptional talent. As a child he had a brief infatuation with Sophie, a girl of a better station in life. Separated by finances and social standing, Sophie and Eisenheim separate and are reunited years later in Vienna where they rekindle their love. Sophie, unfortunately, is soon to be wed to the Crown Prince Leopold who is the jealous type. When Sophie is killed, Eisenheim's illusions seem to conjure her and Inspector Uhl is caught between righting a murder and the obligations of protecting the monarchy.

Now the thing is, I respect some of the bigger actors in The Illusionist. Rufus Sewell, who plays the Crown Prince Leopold, was amazing in Dark City (reviewed here!) Edward Norton was fabulous in The 25th Hour (reviewed here!). Unfortunately, The Illusionist does not make use of most of the acting talents in the movie. Edward Norton and Jessica Biel (Sophie) fail to carry their accents, making many of the moments of their performances worthy of wincing. Rufus Sewell is outfitted with the most ridiculous looking mustache seen in film since . . . well, possibly ever.

The only actor who stood out for me was Paul Giamatti. Giamatti gained my attention for his role as the artistic buffoon in Cradle Will Rock (reviewed here!) where I had the sense he was being underused. Here Giamatti shines with an intellectual performance that rightfully earns him second billing. Giamatti is convincing as Uhl and his conflict, that of morality vs. preservation of State is the only truly original aspect of The Illusionist. He steals every scene he is in.

The other noteworthy aspect of The Illusionist is the quality of the special effects. The Illusionist utilizes state of the art special effects and there is no sense of that in the film. That is to say, we never truly feel like we are watching a special effects movie. Instead, this has the feel of watching an actual magic show, with all of the clever insinuations of bending reality and misdirection that comes with that.

Unfortunately, the one performance and the effects are not enough to save The Illusionist. Its pacing is way off, with a strong beginning that quickly degenerates into a series of plodding events that make the viewer wish we were back at the beginning already. The film is unnaturally slow and it is disturbing to watch the pace of the movie abruptly hit the breaks. I was mildly surprised to see the movie was 110 minutes; the film had the feel of being barely 90 minutes with much of the time being spent with filler to get it up to the minimum recommended length. In short, what Burger might have intended to use to set mood merely delays the inevitable.

Sadly, the romance in The Illusionist is nothing to write home about. There is no chemistry between Biel and Norton and less between Biel and Sewell. Instead, we are subjected to generally passionless characters acting or reacting with the supposed motivations of love and jealousy that the viewer never feels is a serious motivation for any of the characters involved.

And there are nitpicky details, which are almost always a problem in movies that hinge on a reversal like the one required to end The Illusionist. So, for example, Inspector Uhl returns to where he believes Sophie was killed some time after her murder and finds a clue. He finds the clue in the hay in a stable. Unless these are the cleanest horses in history, given that some time has passed, one would think the hay would have been changed. This is just one of the things that leaps instantly into my mind.
More problematic are the character aspects and how the actors attempt and surrender accents at various points in the movie. Regardless of the minutiae, the resolution to The Illusionist is terrible and it boggles my mind how the movie was made given that the end is such an obvious rip-off of The Usual Suspects, which is a vastly superior film.

For other films with magic as a component, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Death Defying Acts
The Last Airbender
The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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