You know the drill. The magician shuffles your selection back into the deck without looking at it, then either identifies it or—if he’s flashy—makes it appear somewhere else entirely.
NOW YOU SEE ME is a tough caper film to latch onto because the screenwriters don’t let their audience pick a card. All the choices have been made for us and we’re just, well, left to watch the cards fall where they may. The premise involves four street magicians who band together to stage outrageous heists at several high-profile gigs, leaving the amazed crowds with the cash. We’re made privy to the secrets behind their less-significant illusions, such as the old rabbit-in-a-box disappearing standby, but the script necessitates keeping us in the dark about why the quartet was assembled, who summonsed them, and who they’re trying to fool with their multimillion dollar swindles. Which means we’re left feeling rather stupid and—when the ending lays everything out neatly for us (like an episode of SCOOBY-DOO or epilogue to one of Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES films)—we get the nagging sensation we’ve been cheated because the dearth of fair, proper clues prevents us from being armchair sleuths who participate in the investigation.
But the important question—as one character puts it to a partner who’s been suckered by a parlor trick—is whether the charade was any fun. Magic is supposed to invoke our sense of wonder even as it pulls the wool over our eyes.
French director Louis Letterier (CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE TRANSPORTER) keeps our eyes busy with foot chases, fistfights, an elegant car crash, and a smattering of sight gags wherein hypnotized people unwittingly confess infidelities to their spouses or—when prompted by a trigger word—play air violin during crises. He elicits competent performances from a top-notch cast boasting master thespians (and DARK KNIGHT pals) Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman and ZOMBIELAND duo Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson—but none truly resonate. Oddly, the intermittent scenes of high-tech hocus-pocus become speed bumps rather than selling points. Because again, it’s difficult to care about these people or their scheme when we never truly get to know them and aren’t allowed to appreciate their motives.
The movie’s best bits unfold before the titles, when we’re introduced to the future “Four Horsemen” members as they display their individual skills. Card shark Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) bribes an electrician to pull off an impressive parlor trick. Smooth-talking mentalist Merritt Osbourne (Harrelson) dupes a pair of unsuspecting diners. Sexy escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) channels Houdini in a piranha-filled dunk tank, and streetwise pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) bends spoons and snatches wallets on a ferryboat.
Each receives an enigmatic, anonymous tarot card invite to a nondescript apartment, where space-age blueprints—left by an unseen host—compel them to form a magic super-group. Bankrolled by zillionaire Arthur Tressler (Caine), the Horsemen rob—or appear to rob—a French bank by “teleporting” a spectator from their
stage. The prank turns the Horsemen into celebrity fugitives, but their promise of an even more astounding (and expensive) encore in Las Vegas enraptures the nation. New Orleans
FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol rookie Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent) are tasked with catching the crooks and get cozy while resolving a few trust issues. Vargas encourages pragmatic
Rhodes to open his mind to the “reality” of magic, but the boozy, razor-stubbled Fed has trouble tabling his detective skills and surrendering logic to folklore. Myth-busting TV host Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) is tapped to help the cops by debunking the thieves’ illusions with science but—like everyone else here—he’s got his own agenda. Repeatedly flummoxed by the fleeing foursome, its Rhodes we sympathize with most. The handsome but perpetually rumpled-looking Ruffalo wears exasperation well onscreen, and it takes a moment of pause to remind oneself that his green-skinned Marvel Comics alter-ego won’t be making an appearance.
Eisenberg’s Atlas is the Horsemen’s point-man, but not even funky shoes, deliberately disheveled hair, or a goatee help wedge the squeaky-voiced actor from his geeky niche. Likewise, Harrelson plays a wiser-cracking version of himself. Fisher and Reeves are sophisticated yet sensual, and empower their male cohorts. Mealy-mouthed Franco enjoys a couple physically demanding scenes but can’t escape the shadow of his older brother. Caine and Freeman square off twice—in a
gift shop and a swanky bar—but their dialogue hasn’t the substance or gravitas needed for the confrontations to crackle. New Orleans
NOW YOU SEE ME poses intriguing questions about the art—the showmanship—of magic. Like THE PRESTIGE, THE ILLUSIONIST, and even the recent comedy BURT WONDERSTONE, it warns viewers that magicians typically serve as distractions to their assistants, who manifest the real abracadabra when we’re not looking. We’re advised to discount the world’s David Copperfields and Chris Angels when they direct our attention over here, when our eyes should be scanning for wires and magnets over there. Still, the picture maintains a healthy sense of wonder and fascination with trickery and deception as entertainment. We’re treated to some neat sleight-of-hand sequences involving smoke and mirrors, handcuffs, cell phones, and a Diet Pepsi can—but the twist ending is less an emotional gut-punch than a wakeup-slap to the cheek. 2 out of 4 stars.