Movie Review: Now You See Me

by Dan Fields

Louis Leterrier's magic heist film Now You See Me stars Jesse Eisenberg
© 2013 Summit Entertainment

The Sorcerer’s Accomplice

It may help to know beforehand that Louis Leterrier, director of Now You See Me, is also the man behind the first two Transporter movies, the remake of Clash Of The Titans, and the latest version of The Incredible Hulk. In other words, his reputation to date hinges on vast amounts of visual spectacle, geared toward the parts of the brain that see fast-moving things and cause the body to gasp with glee. The parts that reason, appreciate coherence, and savor subtlety have been left mostly out of the equation so far.

Now, suddenly, Leterrier has directed a script with nearly as much going on beneath the surface as upon it. Nearly, I repeat. Now You See Me is still a chocolate-frosted treat for the lower brain, but the cleverness accompanying all the flash and sizzle is a welcome surprise.

Four talented solo magicians – mentalist Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), death-defier Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), picpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and close-up virtuoso Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) are summoned by mysterious messages into an uneasy alliance. Their unknown summoner presents them with the blueprints for a magic show on a scale never before seen. Intrigued by the intricacy of the plan, and by the promise of untold wealth and fame, they form an ensemble act called “The Four Horsemen.” After a year of rehearsal, bankrolled by a smug insurance tycoon (Michael Caine), they astound a packed house at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel by robbing a Parisian bank as part of their onstage act.

As soon as the target bank verifies the money as actually missing, the FBI takes a keen interest in the Four Horsemen. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), the suit assigned to the case, plunges into the mystery alongside Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent). Unable to explain how the Horsemen could have pulled off the heist in actual fact, they begin a determined quest to track and sabotage the group’s planned performance at the Savoy Hotel in New Orleans. Rhodes turns to a renowned magic debunker (Morgan Freeman), who applies his analytical skills to the problem just enough to convince us that, with enough meticulous planning and execution, a group of people could conceivably have made this thing happen.

By the way, did I say “talented” magicians earlier? That really does no justice to their skills. These people are steps away from being actual sorcerers, and in this respect the movie pushes beyond ultra-slick heist adventure into light fantasy. The Four Horsemen are magic savants. They are essentially X-Men, each with a personal specialty amounting to a superpower. To accept everything that follows, one must first take the preternatural gifts of these illusionists as a given. Though it comes close in many ways, this is not the mundane world as we know it, and some of the hyper-showmanship we will see is patently impossible.

Bearing that in mind, this movie is solidly grounded in the principles of real-life stage magic, and frequently takes compelling asides to explain concepts like misdirection, manipulation and sleight of hand. There are performers out there with genuinely amazing deception skills, and this film pushes that idea only slightly beyond believable limits. Through Morgan Freeman’s character, the script lays about sixty percent solid logical groundwork. An audience’s willingness to accept the remaining forty percent of quick-witted, eye-catching fantasy is a matter of personal taste.

The motion picture is one of the most refined and conventionally accepted entertainment illusions we know. Isn’t it unfair, then, to expect a movie about stage magic not to take advantage of a few purely cinematic tricks? Leterrier’s great insurance policy is a message that he revisits time after time. “We are tricking you,” the filmmakers tell us, the audience, “because it is fun. Remember that it is entertaining to you when we trick you.” Intellectually challenging movies are great and important and wonderful, but sometimes so is just being dazzled and led astray for a while. Leaving a wealth of little things unexplained is a core principle of this story, which allows the screenwriters to cheat on several plot twists without it ever seeming like a mean-spirited trick.

The phrase that actually gets repeated over and over is “Look closer,” since that is how magicians fool people. What we are really being told is “Don’t look too closely. Think bigger.” As a result, the plot twists grow increasingly predictable. The admonition to consider the big picture recurs so often that as the second act unfolds, audiences will simultaneously be counting backward through all the things they have seen to eliminate more or less every possible explanation but one. This movie could not hope to explain itself fully, so in extremis the script adopts a position along the lines of “We don’t have to explain ourselves. You can’t make us. Are you not entertained?”

You should be, even by a film that so brashly and consistently strains credibility. Its saving graces are first-rate visual presentation, a wry script, and a confident cast with all the right ideas. Eisenberg, Fisher and Harrelson are especially charismatic. Their sharp banter is almost as good as the magic tricks.

Now You See Me is clever, crafty, funny, and in truth suffers from no more severe plot holes than any crime caper. In fact, it operates on a premise designed to cover these holes more deftly than most movies in its class.

If you insist on having your puzzles tightly woven, like Memento or House Of Games, or if you are after high-minded fun on an Inception level, this movie is bound to fall short and frustrate you. Nobody needs a skeptic at a magic show, so try instead to relax and enjoy the year’s first proper (non-sequel) summer popcorn movie.