Now You See Me
2013 - 115 minutes
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Ed Soloman, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher,
Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
“Now You See Me” reminds us consistently throughout that magic is “deception designed to amaze and inspire.” Unfortunately, the film doesn’t hold itself to that principle and when all the cards are laid out on the table, its reveals are rote and uninteresting. And not to mention increasingly impossible as the trickery deepens.
The film starts with an audience participation trick from accomplished street magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) where he rifles through a deck and asks us, along with the cute girl in the crowd on-screen, to pick a card. When he reveals the card in lights on the side of the John Hancock Building, it was the card I picked. This trick also worked on me over 20 years ago when David Copperfield did it on TV.
We aren’t the only ones watching, as we’re shown a hooded figure looking on as well. We’re then introduced to three more magical individuals: mentalist/hypnotist/swindler Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and smooth pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Each one being observed in their element by the same hooded figure, and each one presented with a tarot card with an address and time/date.
The gang of four arrives at the location, greeted with cryptic messages and blueprints. Cut to a year later and team is performing a huge stage show in Las Vegas with the moniker of “The Four Horsemen,” with seemingly unlimited financial backing from Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The show’s grand finale involves selecting an audience member, transporting him to Paris and robbing a bank; the money showered on the audience.
Pretty neat trick which of course gains the attention of law enforcement, with FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol officer Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) put on the case. The pair fails in their initial interrogation of the crew and falls even further behind when the Horsemen are released to continue their hijinks.
The “bank heist” trick is quickly figured out by Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who has made living debunking illusions. The process of going through how the heist was staged is quite entertaining and contains just the right amount of plausible ridiculousness that we’re willing to go with it (even if it borrows heavily from “Ocean’s 11”). The film then reaches a crossroads. It can continue down this path with the law staying a step behind master thief magicians, or it can become a convoluted mess that tries to trick us into thinking it’s being clever. Unfortunately, “Now You See Me” chooses the latter route and becomes quite the tedious slog.
As their second big trick unfolds in New Orleans, we’re treated to a long backstory involving a great magician who was submerged in a bank vault in a river and never resurfaced; which begs the question of how this is all connected. In New Orleans, the Horsemen show includes electronic funds transfers to audience members wronged by a wealthy insurance tycoon. Everyone gets all excited, but it seems to me that this is something the authorities and banks could easily reverse. I mean, cameras are rolling and no secret is being made of what’s going on. Maybe these Robin Hoods didn’t quite think this one through well enough.
But these performances are all a distraction to set up one huge final illusion that could in no way happen. An action chase sequence involving primarily Franco and Ruffalo’s characters has way too many uncontrollable variables to work as flawlessly as it does.
Much of the cast works well in their roles – Eisenberg, showing his smug swagger from “The Social Network,” Harrelson and Ruffalo are the standouts. But after the first act none of the performances (from the actors or their magician characters) are allowed to breathe – the film becomes all about a labyrinthine plot that doesn’t sustain interest.
Of course, if we’re paying attention it all has to start with that hooded figure from the film’s opening. Signs glaringly point to one or two suspects throughout the film, so we know it’s not them. And before the ultimate reveal, there comes a point when the person you least expect becomes the most obvious, and really only, possibility.
The concept of thieving magicians was intriguing, but in the end clunky plotting dooms “Now You See Me” to be nothing more than a showy yet empty poseur.
© 2013 by Blake Crane