Now You See Me (United States/France, 2013)May 30, 2013
With Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier has taken a page out of the book of his characters: use sleight-of-hand so viewers are distracted from some rather obvious screenplay deficiencies. By employing a fast-moving, high-energy approach that includes punchy dialogue, fast cutting, and an up-tempo musical score, Leterrier skates over plot holes with élan, making this a perfect "refrigerator movie" of Hitchcockian nature. As imperfect as Now You See Me might be, it's a lot of fun and features some effective performances from well-known and well-respected actors. It's a little along the same lines as Ocean's 11 in what it achieves and, like that film, there's plenty of Oscar power among the actors - a combined 15 nominations, to be precise.
The film opens with a series of scenes that introduce the main characters with great economy. There's stage magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a perfectionist who needs to be in control; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a "mentalist" who was once a big name; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Atlas' former assistant who has "grown up" to become an escape artist; and con man and small-time trickster Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). When brought together as "The Four Horsemen" by multi-millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), they become the biggest new thing to hit Vegas. Their first stunt is audacious: rob a bank in France while standing on a stage in a casino theater. This gets the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol desk jockey Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), not to mention magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). For the Four Horseman, however, this is only the first act of a three-act play…
Leterrier, the director of The Transporter and Transporter 2, is out of the Luc Besson school of filmmaking that advocates using the big-budget Hollywood approach as a template for "smaller" films. Leterrier is at his best here. Now You See Me isn't action-heavy - there's a car chase and a couple of foot races, but that's about it. Yet the movie is characterized by a high level of energy. It's fast-paced and moves. Despite a nearly two-hour running time, there's not a lot of fat in the screenplay and, at least until late in the proceedings, few letdowns.
If Now You See Me can be said to have an obvious "in the moment" weakness, it's that the third act doesn't live up to the promise of the preceding two. Movies of this sort must always have both a twist and a reveal and Now You See Me is no exception. In this case, both are a little unsurprising and uninspired. They're not downright awful and they don't destroy the experience but, for those hoping to be blown out of their seats, be aware that the ejector device isn't operational. The payoff for the characters (the reason they're doing these big illusion-fueled heists) is also head-scratching. Ultimately, however, it's questionable how much that matters. Like a road trip movie, Now You See Me is more about the journey than the destination.
Some of the actors are treated with greater respect than others. The best performance comes from Jesse Eisenberg who takes the one-dimensional Atlas and makes him a compelling individual (who physically reminded me of Ethan Hawke from a decade-or-so ago). Woody Harrelson is also quite good. The Batman duo of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman lend considerable gravitas to the film (11 of the aforementioned 15 nominations come from those two combined) but they're just on hand to have some fun and collect their paychecks. There's a little mystery surrounding each of their characters and those mini-payoffs are more satisfying than the overall one.
Now You See Me is a considerable upgrade over 2013's earlier "magician movie," the disappointing The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. This takes stage magic more seriously and plays with the idea that, in order to maintain their credibility and keep their names relevant, big-time illusionists must constantly up the ante and attempt tricks that are increasingly spectacular. (One wonders if there's a subtle allusion here to Hollywood tent-poles.) The screenplay connects a lot of dots by hand-waving but that's hardly a unique quality in summer entertainment. Perhaps because of diminished expectations regarding this "stop-gap" between Fast and Furious 6 and Man of Steel, I found it to be one of the season's most satisfying mainstream motion pictures and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Hopefully one trick it won't accomplish is vanishing quickly from theaters in a very competitive environment.
Now You See Me (United States/France, 2013)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Screenplay: Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt
Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen, Larry Fong
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment