How tired is the trope of films about magicians almost automatically being about whether or not there’s such a thing as real magic? It’s as though they’re so intent on taking away the fundamental joy of impossible cinema. This is something Now You See Me pretty quickly cops to, but not before trying to sell the more crucial side of stage magic: showmanship. It’s something Oz the Great and Powerful realized too late with the smoke-projection machine, and too quickly was it sidelined for “real magic”.
What pulls off the first few minutes of Now You See Me isn’t genuine magic, but the savvy charisma the performers use to sell it. Jesse Eisenberg’s trick of showing a card lit up on a building isn’t all that enticing, but I was a bit stunned that the card I’d picked out of the deck was the same as what appeared on the building. I wish I could attribute this to pure sleight of hand, but even I can tell it’s the editing’s slight emphasis on that particular card that’s implanting the card in my memory ahead of time. A film can be a feat of true magic, but in the case of Now You See Me, it turns out to be more of a sly con.
After setting up the Four Horsemen, personalities inevitably defined by their particular trade of magic, we flash forward a year to the start of the actual story. They’re not just tricking the audience into believing in something that isn’t real, but they’re also conning banks out of their money, seemingly by the use of magic. Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent Dylan Rhodes is put on the case, determined to prove that there’s a logical explanation behind every trick.
Paired up with Rhodes is Melanie Laurent’s French Interpol agent Alma Vargas, whom Rhodes never ceases to chide for both her naive – some would say hopeful – belief in magic. And that she’s a silly French person, because the French are naturally incompetent, right? The only other woman in the cast is Isla Fisher, playing escape artist Henley Reeves, who is only ever onstage to be pretty misdirection. Rather than try to turn the stereotype on its head, both Fisher and Laurent ultimately serve as sexual distraction for Eisenberg and Ruffalo, respectively.
The puzzle pieces for the Four Horsemen’s motivations fall into place by the introduction of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine’s characters. The latter is a business mogul who benefits off the naivety of his customers, so practically reprising his Ebenezer Scrooge role from The Muppet Christmas Carol, only this time he seems to have emotional range of a muppet. Freeman plays the other side of cynicism, making his profits from debunking magic acts as he recants to us, the hopelessly flabbergasted audience, every way the Horsemen achieve their elaborate illusions.
Which is to say that there is a philanthropic aspect to the film, or rather the Horsemens’ goals, in that they use their magic less for personal profit than to act as modern day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich and giving to the needy. Which is to say that their tricks are often somewhat amusing, but only as tricks. The script is so intent on explaining every technical finesse of their craft that it ignores our need to emotionally believe in what we’re seeing.
“Can you be any more of a condescending asshole?” Ruffalo’s character might as well be saying this to any character in the film, himself included, as we’re given little reason to take either side of the conflict. The Horsemen remain one-dimensional caricatures, Eisenberg being the charming ass, Woody Harrelson being the sly, ironic wit, Fisher being… well, pretty, and Dave Franco being most shortchanged as “the kid”. To Franco’s benefit, he does get the single most engaging action sequence of the film, and it involves zero magic whatsoever.
It’s even a joke to call it magic, since it’s debunked very early on as technical wizardry, with their bright holograms’ spastic fidgeting never registering as much wonder for us as it does for them. So too does the camera whiz and whirl around every set, showing everything without ever focusing enough to build coherent action. Just to remind you that what you’re watching is supposed to be engaging, Brian Tyler’s overly heroic score is always there to bellow loudly in your ear. Even director Louis Letterier’s penchant for exorbitant finales fails to deliver, with the final performance being little more than perfunctory razzle dazzle. Isn’t this the guy who set two Hulks amok on Harlem and released the Kracken?
As always, Letterier’s obnoxious restlessness overrides his storytelling motivations, far more interested in being stylish than being clever. He’s much more preoccupied with the sexiness of his characters than he is in the characters themselves. Ruffalo’s character is so impossible to get behind for the majority that when he finally does take on some endearing quality VERY late on in the film, we’re still left with nearly two hours of him being a complete ass. Everything may tie together and make sense at the close, but that only goes to show how hollow and uninteresting the film was in the first place. All that said, I could imagine some franchise future for it in the vein of Fast & Furious, meaning that it starts out mediocre, only to finally get good on the fifth installment. Assuming people care enough to spend money on four films in the meantime. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Bottom Line: Now You See Me is the definition of style over substance, conning the audience into believing it smarter and sweeter than it actually is.