Quick Take: Now You See Me loses sight of what it needs to accomplish.
On the surface, the new film Now You See Me should be one of my favorite movies ever filmed. It contains two things I love dearly: magic and crime heists. I’ve always been a fan of magic. I’m not one of those that tries to figure it out; I genuinely want to be mystified. As for the heist aspect, I love a good, well-constructed crime caper. The more moving parts, the better.
Unfortunately, Now You See Me fails on both parts.
Now You See Me focuses on a group of low-level magicians, each from a different aspect of magic. J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is the conceited, David Copperfield-like magician that thinks that he’s smarter than everyone else, and as long as he is, he can fool anyone. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist, who can read minds and hypnotize folks at will. Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is an escape artist with the flair of the macabre. Lastly, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a true street magician, who will show you a trick and rob you blind.
As the film opens, a mysterious person brings these four together and shows them the plans for what will become the greatest trick ever. Flash-forward a year, and the four magicians now work under the name, The Four Horsemen, and they are a big draw in Vegas under the watchful eyes of multimillionaire, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), who acts as their showbiz benefactor.
The Horsemen’s final trick is to pull off a bank robbery in real time from a French bank in front of a packed Vegas audience. After the trick is successful to the tune of 30 million missing Euros, the FBI begins an investigation and agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is teamed up with a beautiful INTERPOL agent named Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) to investigate the Four Horsemen.
The next show is in New Orleans, and Rhodes and Dray do everything they can to stop the trick, which is to drain the bank account of their benefactor Tressler of $144 million dollars and to give it to the people of New Orleans. Now the FBI and INTERPOL have a case and the Horsemen escape before they can be caught, promising one final trick that will blow everyone’s minds.
Now You See Me goes through the usual motions of a heist film, by introducing a colorful menagerie of people who, when brought together, can work magic. They even go so far as to explain how the first two tricks are done using the character of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a failed magician who now hosts a web show that exposes working magicians secrets. Bradley, as you might guess, is not well liked by the magic community, and his exposing of secrets led to the death of a great magician in the ’70s, due to that magician trying to pull off a trick so crazy that Bradley would never be able to solve it.
What fails here is that after the two tricks/heists, we are told that there is a huge, world-shattering trick to come, but we (the audience) are never told what it is. It’s impossible to root for its success when we don’t even know what it is. It’s a prestige without a set up. And this is where the film unravels. It stops being about the heist, or about magic, and instead focuses on Ruffalo’s Rhodes trying to get a step ahead of the magicians, which brings the story to a screeching halt. And what’s worse is this is Now You See Me trying to build characterization, and it fails there too, as none of the characters are developed at all.
The script, by Boaz Yakin (Safe), Ed Solomon (Men In Black) and Edward Ricourt, has its moments, and the story begins to even feel more like The Usual Suspects more so than, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Louis Letterer (The Incredible Hulk) has trouble trying to balance the magic aspect with the heist aspect and still keep that aura of mystery of the “whodunnit.”
As for the performances, Eisenberg plays every single Eisenberg character ever. He’s cocky, precocious, and you literally want to reach out and smack him. Fisher is serviceable but she has no motivation or backstory, other than being the ex (lover and assistant) of Eisenberg’s Atlas. Franco is literally scenery, which is very odd to say since he has an incredible action-packed, magic-laced battle with Ruffalo, but I can’t tell you anything about Wilder as a magician or a character, and the only worthy character of all the magicians is Harrelson’s McKinney, who once again melts into the role and comes off as believable. Freeman and Caine do what they do best, but both are essentially given nothing to work with in this script.
Now You See Me tries to be a different movie, but again, Letterer and the writers seem to forget that magic fails if you have a prestige with no set up. How are we supposed to care what happens if we never know what we are supposed to be looking for? In this, the filmmakers fail to pull off the trick, and rely solely on a twist ending that, in itself, isn’t set up very well. The magicians in Now You See Me like to explain the rules of magic to the FBI and INTERPOL, and in so doing, the audience is conditioned to look out for what is to come. The problem is everyone involved misses the key ingredient in the core of what makes magic work, and Now You See Me suffers for it.
Now You See Me is rated PG-13 an opens nationwide on May 31, 2013.