Review: 'Now You See Me' Is Cinematic Flimflam

Now You See Me

On paper, Now You See Me looks like one heck of a heist thriller. Featuring a terrific cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco as four magicians brought together by a mysterious benefactor, Mark Ruffalo as the rumpled cop hellbent on stopping their dazzling crime spree, and Morgan Freeman as a famous magic debunker who might be working for either side, it gives every appearance of a sleek, tightly written caper, with the added benefit of cool magic tricks thrown into the mix. Sadly, all that promise is wasted on a depressingly flimsy trifle that never stops tripping over itself long enough to establish a rhythm -- and every time it seems like the movie might right itself, it turns out to be the wrong kind of illusion; as Freeman's character says to Ruffalo at one point, "It's misdirection again."

Director Louis Leterrier, working from a script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt, deserves plenty of the blame for Now You See Me's shortcomings. He's known for having a certain amount of flashy visual style, but it's misused here; his camera work is too fidgety, and his use of CGI in a couple of the movie's big scenes is far too obvious. A film about illusionists as skilled as these four should feel smooth and confident, but in Leterrier's hands, it comes across as overeager and a little too cocky for its own good, which is almost enough to sink the movie all by itself. Magic works because we want to be thrilled; we want to see and believe the impossible. The effect is ruined when the magician overplays his hand, and Leterrier's definitely guilty of that here.

It's easy to understand, however, why he tried so hard to generate spectacle. For one thing, magic kind of sucks as a cinematic device in the CG age; we've grown accustomed to the knowledge that filmmakers can create just about any visual effect a person could imagine, so the sight of anyone doing anything on camera has lost a lot of its luster. But Now You See Me's truly fatal flaw is that Solomon/Yakin/Ricourt screenplay, which mistakes coincidence layered upon circumstance for intelligence, never bothers to give us characters who behave in ways that make sense, and -- most crucially of all -- forgets that in a movie like this, you really need to gird the plot structure in order to suspend disbelief at critical moments. Instead, See Me's script just keeps throwing out plot twists in an attempt to keep the audience guessing.

The end result of all that wasted motion is that you stop believing anything is real, which evaporates the dramatic stakes and makes for an oddly sleepy heist thriller; rather than trying to keep up or figure anything out, you're liable to be fighting to stay awake. The whole movie ends up coming across like Wallace Shawn's character in The Princess Bride: so smug in its belief that it's already outwitted you that it ends up poisoning itself before the story's halfway over.

Alas, Now You See Me keeps going. Fortunately, there are small pleasures to be had, at least until things go seriously off the rails in the final act; after all, there's only so wrong you can go with a cast this talented. Harrelson is always a pleasure to watch when he's relaxed, and he's cool as a cucumber here, and Ruffalo makes for an entertainingly flummoxed uptight cop; the movie also takes a moment to give us a scene between Freeman and Michael Caine, both of whom manage to deliver marginally believable performances with two-dimensional characters. Plotwise, it even throws in an interesting wrinkle or two, with a nod to one-percenter politics and pent-up economic rage.

Unfortunately, it never does anything meaningful with any of those ingredients. About the best you can say for Now You See Me is that its action sequences are mostly cleanly shot, its stars are reliably charming, and the dialogue delivers a laugh or two. Nothing that happens on screen ever feels like it matters, though, and long before it stumbles to its truly terrible conclusion, you may find yourself chuckling at the unintentional irony of one character referring to magic as "deception designed to inspire." That may be true, but this is just a shoddy scam designed to waste two hours of your day. The only amazing thing about it is that the shysters responsible got help from actors this talented.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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