(by Dustin Putman
Less than six months into 2013, there have been two motion pictures, different in tone, about master illusionists in Las Vegas. The first was the exuberant, devilish, wildly funny Steve Carell comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," a film that truly brought to life the joys, satisfaction, and frequent absurdity of being a professional magician. The second out of the gate, "Now You See Me," is positioned more as a slick heist mystery with light comedic touches—comparisons to "Ocean's Eleven," "Ocean's Twelve," and "Ocean's Thirteen" are unavoidable—though, unfortunately, its fleet-footed intentions are done in by a talky, undernourished script, paperweight characters, and an entirely misguided focus on the wrong people as protagonists. A synthetic sleight of hand that divulges plenty of tricks but never quite settles on a satisfactory endgame, "Now You See Me" moves sluggishly through its paces while managing to waste just about every actor in its top-flight ensemble. Article continues below
One year after being collectively summoned to a mysterious NYC loft apartment, a quartet of magicians and mentalists—J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—have joined forces as "The Four Horsemen" for a series of magic acts to end all magic acts. When, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, they supposedly manage to teleport a French audience member to his Paris bank and help him to steal $3.2 million Euros, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol officer Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) are partnered up to investigate. Rhodes is sure "The Four Horsemen" are committing any number of illegal activities, following them around the country as they take their increasingly high-stakes show to New Orleans and, later, Manhattan. Keeping one step ahead of Rhodes and Dray is wily retired illusionist Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), straddling the line between helping them and siding with the Horsemen as dollar signs blur his vision.
Directed with far too little vim and vigor by Louis Leterrier (2010's "Clash of the Titans"), "Now You See Me" involves everything from Danny, Merritt, Henley and Jack aiding in an insurance company pay-off to natural disaster victims, to multiple cash switcheroos with varying outcomes. Even as they carry out complex prestidigitations instructed to them by an unknown puppet master, "The Four Horsemen" have no clue how their charade is going to work out or what their ultimate destination is. There is silly talk about a highly exclusive organization for master magic-makers called "The Eye," but screenwriters Ed Solomon (2009's "Imagine That"), Boaz Yakin (2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"), and first-timer Edward Ricourt don't even seem to be particularly sure of the hows and whys. Had the film at least centered upon these four people who apparently have no lives outside of their profession, perhaps the viewer could have gotten to know them and become more involved in learning and discovering the truths behind what they're doing as they themselves do. Instead, they're treated as no more than pawns who pop up now and again to do tricks and power-walk down stairs and across streets with serious expressions on their face.
Jesse Eisenberg (2012's "To Rome with Love"), Woody Harrelson (2012's "Seven Psychopaths"), Isla Fisher (2013's "The Great Gatsby"), and Dave Franco (2013's "Warm Bodies")—all of them capable of shining in roles much meatier than these thankless supporting turns—are too frequently sidelined while never for a second getting a chance to explore who their characters are and what makes them tick. That leaves the drier, less dynamic special investigators Rhodes and Dray, played by Mark Ruffalo (2012's "The Avengers") and Mélanie Laurent (2011's "Beginners"), to get the bulk of screen time, the narrative following them as they follow "The Four Horsemen." The trouble with this is that they simply aren't especially interesting, and, until the ending, serve no purpose other than to pose as road blocks for the magicians in question. It's a case of a picture being problematically designed on a structural level, and paying the price with a completed product that doesn't work nearly as well as it should. Morgan Freeman (2013's "Oblivion"), as the deceptive Thaddeus Bradley, and Michael Caine (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises"), as wealthy benefactor Arthur Tressler, are obviously class acts, but their scenes, too, only serve to slow down the pacing.
"Now You See Me" has one great scene, and its the first one—a nifty card trick performed by Danny Atlas that works over the viewer while simultaneously working over the onscreen audience. As cool as this is, the rest of the movie hasn't the energy or momentum it should. There's no denying the whole thing is meant to be a fun lark, but what happens when the intended diversion isn't half as enjoyable as it thinks it is? What's left, but a piffle of thin air? As silly and satirical as "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" was, it felt knowledgable and incisive about the milieu it was portraying. "Now You See Me" holds no such scrutiny; like a disappearing rabbit in a box, it's a threadbare and unmemorable gimmick of a film so inconsequential that its very existence seems to vanish before one's eyes.