Sunday, May 19, 2013

Summer Blockbuster Season’s (Potentially) Smartest Film Arrives With Now You See Me!

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting concept, Good pacing
The Bad: Nauseating direction, Falls apart a bit at the end.
The Basics: While Now You See Me does not hinge entirely upon the final reveal/reversal, it is a fairly fresh-feeling heist/illusionist film.

Summer Blockbuster Season – which is my favorite season of the year and the one in which we now find ourselves – is not known for smart movies. Big-budget, special effects-driven, spectacle-over-substance popcorn flicks yes, intelligent, contemplative pieces, no. Summer 2013 is not going to change that. That said, Now You See Me actually manages to put a dent in the usual summer stupidity by creating a piece that is largely satisfying even though it spends an inordinate amount of time trying to dazzle as opposed to developing the characters within the movie.

As a film involving magicians (illusionists) and one that blends with the well-established heist genre, Now You See Me has a seemingly difficult task. It is combining two genres that largely hinge on the power of the reversal, making a clever twist in the end that rewards the viewer with an epiphanic moment that enhances the rest of the film. There are films that do that exceptionally well, like The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) and given that several years have elapsed since both The Prestige (reviewed here!) and The Illusionist (reviewed here!) graced the screen, Now You See Me had the remarkable potential to shake up that formula and do something smart. And it (almost, mostly) succeeds.

Now You See Me becomes far too preoccupied with explaining itself in literal terms as opposed to either exploring characters or making a grander thematic statement than it does. These two things drag the movie out of extraordinary territory and into the higher average realm.

After being drawn together by invitations to a single location, four magicians are given the plans to an amazing trick that intrigues them all. A year after coming together, in Las Vegas, the magic act called the Four Horsemen is having a meteoric run dazzling audiences, working under their benefactor Arthur Tressler. Four magicians working together on stage to sold-out audiences is unremarkable enough until one night in their act they present a trick that is as criminal as it is dazzling. They seemingly teleport a person to a bank in Paris and they take the contents of the vault and shower the audience with the stolen currency. The Four Horsemen’s trick amuses retired illusionist Thaddeus Bradley, who now makes his living debunking magic acts as part of an Internet program that makes him money. After a second show, in New Orleans, robs Arthur Tressler of hundreds of millions of dollars, Tressler changes his tune. Tressler tries to extort Bradley into assist the FBI and Interpol in exposing the Four Horsemen and getting him justice.

The task of uncovering how the team of Michael Atlas, Henley, Jack, and Merritt Osbourne robbed the bank and then Tressler while they were seen by thousands on stage falls to Dylan Hobbes and Interpol agent Alma Vargas. Hobbes is rational and methodical and he and Vargas follow the clues given to them by Bradley and the Four Horsemen to try do deduce both how and why the Four Horsemen performed their trick. The ticking clock for Hobbes is that the Four Horsemen are promising to create an even bigger trick and Hobbes is tasked with preventing that trick from having severe global financial consequences. So, as he unravels one trick, he tries to extrapolate what is coming next and thwart a team who appears to be trying to make themselves into high-tech, Robin Hood-style thieves!

As an anticapitalist, my hopes with Now You See Me, based on the initial trailers for the film (which, admittedly, captivated me as a good trailer ought to!) was that the movie would focus more on the Robin Hood type element whereby the magicians of the Four Horsemen seemed to be altruistic in their robberies. No such luck. Instead, it is made clear exceptionally early on that the magicians of the Four Horsemen are not so much champions of the people as they are creating plot-centered distractions (and, because they did not retain the money they allegedly stole, the agencies hunting them have less grounds upon which to hold them!). The film is preoccupied with protecting the assets of the rich (and business) as opposed to a cunning scheme to help the downtrodden.

That said, Now You See Me is pretty solidly entertaining. Mark Ruffalo, whose character of Agent Hobbes dominates the screentime of Now You See Me makes for a compelling protagonist. His character’s methodology is solid and as the film goes on he continues to use reason to explain what appears to be supernatural or exceptional events that he is exposed to. Ruffalo is a good choice for Hobbes as he has the ability to present an inner strength that makes him credibly seem like an FBI agent, but he can soften his expressions to create a façade of bewilderment and frustration that the story demands the character have.

Morgan Freeman (Bradley) and Michael Caine (Tressler) continue their streak of playing powerful supporting characters who are given just enough screentime to justify their salary, but not enough to show the viewers anything truly new from their performances. Their parts are more the product of impressive casting than anything approaching great acting. Similarly, Jesse Eisenberg as Michael Atlas is good casting, but not a great performance. Eisenberg has a history so far of playing smart, articulate, confident young men and in Now You See Me he gives us nothing truly new. If you’re looking for a performance different from, for example, his role in The Social Network (reviewed here!), you are liable to be disappointed. His performance is not bad (assuming he is not so arrogant in real life), but it is nothing new or truly different.

The stand-out for Now You See Me is Isla Fisher. Fisher has been relegated to the ditzy protagonist of numerous romantic comedies and “chick flicks” where she has been more eye candy than playing substantial roles. In Now You See Me, Fisher is given a part that is a chance for her to shine, though she hardly has enough screentime to truly explode. Fisher plays Henley, one of the Four Horsemen. She appears on stage in the film as eye candy, a distraction for the audience. However, in several of the scenes where Henley and the Four Horsemen are making their plans, she exhibits an efficiency and almost quiet power that is impressive. There are moments when she fixes on the others with her eyes and one can almost feel the physical force of her glare!

As for the look and feel of Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier undermines some of the drama by using the camera like a drunken sailor, spinning around and twisting at irksome angles and speeds. With any story of magicians – or heist films – there is some element of spectacle and reversal. Leterrier works too hard with the camera to land it, effectively saying “Look! Be amazed!” as opposed to creating something truly amazing.

For other works with Michael Caine, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Children Of Men
Miss Congeniality
The Muppet Christmas Carol


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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