The trailers for Now You See Me telegraph up front that you should expect a twist along the way. You’re teased and beguiled by the possibility of having the wool pulled over your eyes, and taunted for daring to look too closely. Sooner or later, this movie swears it will fool you.
It’s no spoiler, then, to reveal that yes, the movie does eventually have a twist. Despite the fancy stage-magician trappings, its base template is the heist-film genre, in which the viewer’s homework assignment is trying to guess which character will be revealed as a mole or a double-crosser by the end. In that sense, the genre expectations are fulfilled here, including the part where that big revelation turns several previous scenes into utter nonsense if you retrace your steps and rethink them too deeply.
The plot, if you ignore the smoke and mirrors, is simple: a mysterious hooded figure gathers together four masters in four different trickster fields, provides them with cutting-edge technology, orders them to execute a series of increasingly convoluted stage shows that will incorporate random acts of illegality into them, and promises a nebulous reward. Your villains are Jesse Eisenberg as the young, popular Vegas showman du jour; his Zombieland costar Woody Harrelson as a mentalist whose fleeting fame has passed; Isla Fisher as an escape artist, not a mere assistant; and James Franco’s younger brother Dave as a street-level con artist. In the extended prologue the quartet interact with wit and flair, uniting under odd circumstances and setting aside their minimal differences for a purposes that remains TBD through most of the next two hours.
Unfortunately, in order to avoid showing us all its cards, the movie soon shifts perspective and shoves Mark Ruffalo into center stage as an FBI agent tasked with investigating the four — calling themselves the Four Horsemen — when a Vegas performance one year after their gathering results in — or coincides with? — the disappearance of three million francs from a French bank thousands of miles away. As the mystery deepens, the audience is held at arm’s length from the interesting characters and instead asked to tag along with the generic FBI guy who speaks in cop-movie clichés and finds himself saddled with an unseasoned Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) whose credentials are so vague that it doesn’t take long for her to be pinpointed as a potential mole. Look at her! She’s the film’s surprise twist! the movie tries to convince us.
Also along for the ride are Morgan Freeman as a race-swapped James Randi who delights in debunking other magicians for his own personal gain, Michael Caine as the insurance company bigwig who sponsors the Horsemens’ premiere gigs, Michael Kelly (Chronicle) as Ruffalo’s useless partner, and rapper Common as another undistinguished FBI agent. With Freeman and Caine on board, one hopes we’re in for another Christopher Nolan cast reunion, possibly something as inventive, as visceral, or at least as memorable as The Prestige. As frantically directed by Louis Leterrier (the underrated Incredible Hulk, the not-half-bad Clash of the Titans), the lights keep dazzling, the tricks keep confounding (mostly), and the camera rarely stops moving because it doesn’t want you to rest for two minutes and think things through. This film is not built to welcome the luxury of pondering.
Once I had a chance to stop and sort the sights and tropes in my mind, in all seriousness I managed to see the trick about three minutes before it was officially shown to us, largely because: (a) I thought to myself, “If I were making a twist-based film and wanted to avoid direct comparisons to The Usual Suspects or Primal Fear, what kind of twist would seem the most original?”; and (b) I ran out of viable suspects. Problem was, once the final cards were turned face-up, hindsight illuminated a two-hour network of thin contrivances and drastic actions with one-in-a-million odds of falling precisely into just the right order. Worse still, the magic tricks become less mystifying as we go, till by the end you’re left wondering why anyone is still falling for sleight-of-hand after one red herring too many.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Now You See Me end credits, though I did spot two curious items:
1. A buried credit line reading, “Based on magic by DAVID COPPERFIELD”. I’m not sure if this was a heartfelt tip of the hat or a Legal Department mandate.
2. For a movie in which nearly all the action is explained away as practical effects, why were eight or ten CG-effects studios needed?