About 15-20 minutes in, the trick begins. Actually it really begins in the first minute of Now You See Me (2013), but you don’t realize it until about 15 minutes in. Well, you’ll realize it in the first minute because I told you about it, but I didn’t have the benefit of reading my own review until about thirty minutes after I started writing it. So I lost about 15 minutes, but what I gained was about an hour and a half of chasing my tail trying to figure everything out. How did they do that, who’s the MacGuffin, is it him, is it her, or is it…?
J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is a bit of a playboy illusionist with a specialty for card tricks. After one such trick, he brings a young lady to his abode only to kick her out almost immediately. He finds a new card, emblazoned with the figure of an eye, tucked in his shoe inviting him to New York. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist/hypnotist extorting couples on vacation to keep the secrets he’s gleaned from them truly secret. He too receives a card. As do escape artist/beauty Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and acrobat/pickpocket/all-rounder Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). They all come to this apartment in New York, some of them sharing some history, and are shown the blueprints of one major trick. One year later, they appear to rob a bank, millions of miles away, showering the crowd with the cash setting the FBI on their trail. Heading up the investigation is Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and at his side is pretty French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). Also included are magic-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and the quartet’s financial backer Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). Come in close. The closer you look, the less you’ll see.
At its heart, you have this great trick which is explained to you as a great trick very early on. Also early on, you get this rule that the closer you look, the less you see. That’s a little frustrating, or can be. Then you have the Interpol agent, the lover of magic, explaining the wonder of it and her faith in the unseen. She talks about how seeing something wonderful brings a smile to your face. The villain of the piece is Thaddeus Bradley, the de-wonderer. He ruins lives and ruins the fun by deconstructing the trick. Perhaps you can sympathize with my own wonderment that those who wrote these elements, Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt, didn’t see the painfully obvious irony in their explaining every single trick after it happens.
I always want a summer movie to push the limits and become the definitive movie in its subject. Here, we have magic and trickery and its explanation. The best magic movie is probably The Prestige (2006). But they don’t have half the maturity or respect for the audience that Christopher Nolan did. Instead, Louis Leterrier seems to have thought he was making Ocean’s Eleven (2001). But even then, Leterrier didn’t know how to balance the charm against the heist. This is because they told the story from the perspective of the FBI agents for about 70% of the time and with occasional check-ins with the four magicians who, it seemed, didn’t know what was really going on. Consider as well that within that breakdown, you have four main characters crammed into that 30% and two in the 70%. Despite this imbalance, Leterrier still seemed to think he could pull off two love-interest stories at the end. The first, the imbalance, I can accept as misguided device to maintain the sanctity of the trick as it was performed, but the latter love stories are simple, stupid pandering that cannot possibly deceive anyone. You’d think that maybe with 70% of the show devoted to the Ruffalo/Laurent characters that the love would show itself and work, but you’d be wrong. They spend much more time running after people and disdaining one another than having any genuine connections.
What is a little sad is that it did have a solid core story. If they had left out the final explanation and didn’t feel compelled to explain ever little detail of the intermediate tricks, they could have had something very good on their hands. They just looked at it from the wrong angle—maybe a few more viewings of Ocean’s Eleven would have helped—and put together the movie they knew how to make. That’s the one with the shadowy figure you know has to be revealed, a highly unrealistic investigation process, and a three set-piece outline to be fleshed out with as much plastic charm as could be manufactured. Oh, and could the camera please take a break from swimming in circles around the characters? Looking over Leterrier’s films, narrative has never been allowed to take up any serious amount of time.
Oh, what could have been.