Skip to main content

First rule of magic: always be the smartest person in the room.


Now You See Me
(2013)

(SPOILERS) These days, the arrival of a summer movie that is neither a sequel nor a superhero outing is rare. And one that requires its audience to do a bit of thinking is even less common.  Any film that promises both these ingredients is to be seized gratefully, making the ineptitude of Now You See Me doubly disappointing.

The premise is an alluring one; four stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) pull off robberies in public. They announce themselves as the culprits during live shows, but the authorities can neither place them at the scene nor prove their guilt. A grand conceit, and one that sets fairly high expectations if it is to be played out to any degree of satisfaction.


I was on board for this at least being fun, but Louis Leterrier’s movie lets you down on every level. The only clever bit of misdirection was right there at the booking office; the advertising persuaded me into an unwarranted trip to the cinema.


The filmmakers are set on imitating the pomp of the big Las Vegas magic shows, but they fail to apply themselves to the kernel of these acts; the tricks themselves. The heists, despite their CGI-sheen, are weary old illusions. Anyone unaware of the key tools of the stage magician’s trade, or who has never encountered a locked room mystery, might feasibly be intrigued by the feats this quartet pull off, but the director isn’t banking on it. The explanation for each illusion is raced through as if it is of incidental value to the main plot rather than something to be savoured. And, since magic tricks buster Morgan Freeman is doing the explaining, we’re in the curious realm of theory-in-progress rather than proven fact. It’s tantamount to Hercule Poirot giving the murderer’s name but not bothering to draw out the minutiae of how he reached that conclusion.


Leterrier and his (three) writers clearly want us to be impressed with the repetitive sleights of (often CGI) hand. But drawing attention to the fact that the theme of the movie is misdirection doesn't give the arbitrary twists any added cachet. Every good whodunit features red herrings; the trick is not only to keep the audience guessing but also to ensure that the final reveal is satisfying and apparently consistent.


Most mystery plots of this ilk have a house of cards structure; if you look too closely at the construction it’s often found to be structurally unsound. If you’re doing a good job, this occurs only in retrospect. If the audience is aware of the failings in each scene, you’re doing something very wrong. In Now You See Me, the precision timing required for events to play out as they do, combined with the uncontrollable variables at work, destroys any suspension of disbelief. The carnage of the freeway chase is the most glaring of these; unless every car on that stretch of road was equipped with a stunt driver the chances of serious injury or fatality would be enormous. We’ve seen this before, in David Fincher’s The Game, but that film’s lack of credibility is peanuts compared to this.


Now You See Me is only faux-clever, off-puttingly pleased with itself (never a good idea) and as smug in execution as its less-than-dazzling tricksters. Leterrier shoots the movie as if he’s letting us witness a Vegas show, and the effect is not dissimilar to watching a sitcom with a soundtrack of canned laughter. The rapt audiences at The Four Horseman gigs, gasping and wowing, makes us all the more aware of how underwhelming the experience is. It's like watching footage of a rave rather than being there.


Stylistically, the movie is a disaster. Leterrier can't keep his damn camera still, constantly cutting on movement and swirling 360 degrees around his magicians to reveal their sheer awesomeness. He treats the entire picture as a triumphant peak moment, and doesn’t appear to realise how wearying that is. If the script were any better he’d have been the wrong man for the job. As it stands, he just exacerbates its core problems, treating what ought to be a brain-teasing puzzler like an action movie (a genre that is his natural home; Transporter 2 is surprisingly hyperbolic fun). One might argue he's attempting to distract us from how shallow and nonsensical the plot is, but if that’s the case he fails abysmally. And, given his past efforts (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk), I doubt that’s the case. I’m sure he genuinely believes this is a cerebral feast. Brian Tyler's score only serves to underline the inability of its director to show any restraint. It’s ever-present, attempting to stoke wonderment but fast becoming an irritant.


The irony of a film like this is that it asks you to question what you see but only to the extent that you don't breach its flimsy internal logic. How would the magicians, having announced their intent, remain at large? Even given that their benefactor might potentially pull some strings shouldn't they be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit a felony? When they give away backer Michael Caine’s money, are the writers just wilfully ignoring that the bank would have to return these unauthorised payments to him? Or are they just ignorant? Did the police really not check below the stage (after the first heist) until Morgan Freeman arrived to imbue wisdom? And when Freeman is imprisoned at the end, are we supposed to believe that his ridiculously-stuffed-with-cash car held up in court as the only and decisive evidence against him? Not to mention that he seems to be the sole inmate in the most squalid of prisons (I half expected a reveal that this was another fake-out but it never comes).


The dogged ineptitude of the Mark Ruffalo’s detective is the only aspect of his reveal as mastermind that remotely legitimises the vastly over-used trope of stacking your narrative on top of the least likely character twist. Yes, I know, it’s all about the misdirection. But the tale of the card in the tree in no way silences doubts about the converge of circumstances necessary for Ruffalo’s elaborate scheme to succeed.

There’s also a very real problem with audience identification. We don’t care for the obnoxious magic act (who, in any case, we are distanced from after the first 20 minutes) because they’re so obnoxious. We don’t root for the cops because they’re so inept (even excusing Ruffalo, their complete lack of ability is plain ludicrous). We’re looking for someone else to connect with, but Morgan Freeman’s smugly all-knowing trade secrets buster is too tangential to fit the bill. It’s not essential to include audience identification, of course. That is, as long as the plot engages. Which it does not. So, long before we discover why who did what and how, we've lost interest.


Further rubbing salt in the wound, the epilogue finds Ruffalo and Interpol agent Melanie Laurent sitting on a French bench as he explains his unlikely backstory. Going back to the Freeman’s reveal of the magic tricks, if there was any conviction about this character we’d be invited to marvel as Leterrier traces the visual narrative of his life to the point where he fulfils his quest for revenge. As there’s no sympathy for Ruffalo, he comes across as dispenser of disproportionate justice (in Freeman’s case at any rate, even given that 99% of the Magic Circle would be pissed at him). I presume there were deleted scenes, as Ruffalo’s dad is played by Elias Koteas in the newspaper photographs, but I doubt they’d make the plot any more digestible.


Any other character could quite easily have been slotted in as mastermind; Ruffalo’s only distinction is that suspicion hasn’t been cast his way (unlike Freeman and Laurent). Indeed, Leterrier goes to the opposite extreme. He cheats with scenes such as Ruffalo getting drunk, depressed about how the case is going, just for the benefit of the audience. Ruffalo’s a fine actor (he’d be the perfect Columbo in an inevitable big screen version), and I guess he was attracted to part for the leading man credit in a reasonably high profile movie, but his generally good taste in roles has deserted him this time (Freeman and Caine will show up in any old tat).

Speaking of Caine, he’s back in familiar cash-the-cheque mode. Perhaps it's divine justice that he has to struggle through some shockingly laboured scenes with the fraudulent foursome. Eisenberg’s attempts to “mentalise” Caine is painful to watch. There’s no chemistry; they all just want to get off the set.


The characters of the magicians are oblique at best. The opening scenes suggest we'll be along for the ride with them, and do a reasonable job of setting up their skill sets. And probably the best sequence in the film is their police interrogation following the bank heist, showing off why they are good at what they do (even that loses something when you realise Ruffalo was in on it). But they quickly take a back seat to the police investigation; the need to obscure the mechanics of their scheme is clearly the reasoning for this, yet other films have managed to etch out strong characters and avoid reveals (The Prestige, to name but one). When we occasionally cut back to them, to be informed of their motivation and that they are in the dark about their master’s identity, there seems to be an assumption that their fates matter. Why should we be invested in them? At the very least, Harrelson and Franco are unscrupulous in their former trades. At worst, outright immoral. Are we supposed to cheer their ultimate reward?


More damningly, Harrelson’s is the only one with an iota of charm. Eisenberg is playing another irritating little shit; Mark Zuckberg again, or maybe he’s just being himself? Fisher twirls through the air within a CGI bubble, which is as much weight as she brings to her role. And Franco continually cracks the most punchable grin in the history of Hollywood. If you thought his big brother was an infernal nuisance to cinema, prepare to discover that it runs in the family. I hoped against hope that his character actually had perished during the freeway scene.


The writers probably should have been a warning sign. It’s Edward Ricourt’s first credit, but Boaz Yakin is a master of mediocrity (The Rookie, sequels to From Dusk Till Dawn and Dirty DancingPrince of Persia). Ed Solomon hasn’t impressed anyone since his Bill and Ted days. Accordingly, there are committee-led subplots in abundance.

Ruffalo and Laurent's romance comes out of the blue (we’re supposed to believe she’s attracted to this sociopath who has done nothing but undermine her?) Poor Laurent is consigned to a miserable role. If she isn’t required to ramble incoherently about faith she’s shouting at Ruffalo, repeatedly demanding that he “never speak to her like that again”.


The magicians are motivated by the promise of membership of a magical secret society, the ultimate accolade for those who have perfected their art. But The Eye is so vague that it seems like an afterthought. Throwing in odds and sods of occult paraphernalia do nothing to nourish the idea. You can see why it’s there; mysterious ancient sects lend a bit of mythic weight. But even the lamest of movies have managed something a bit more inspired (Robert Langdon’s escapades, Wanted).  The Tarot cards presented to the foursome are presumably picked for symbolic reasons, but they don’t invite further interpretation. And the bombastic moniker “The Four Horseman” is an end in itself. Most laughable is their induction into The Eye; their Tarot cards merge into one via yet more CGI wizardry. Then, every bit as amazed as we aren’t, they are ushered onto an anti-climactic psychedelic merry-go-round.


Perversely, the only upside to Now You See Me may be its sleeper success. In an age of safe bets on aforementioned known properties, it might encourage studios to take a few chances. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And, if original fare is produced, there’s still the obstacle of making it halfway decent.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I want the secret of the cards. That’s all.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (SPOILERS) Marty Scorsese’s a big fan (“ a masterpiece ”), as is John Boorman, but it was Edgar Wright on the Empire podcast with Quentin “One more movie and I’m out, honest” Tarantino who drew my attention to this Thorold Dickinson picture. The Queen of Spades has, however, undergone a renaissance over the last decade or so, hailed as a hitherto unjustly neglected classic of British cinema, one that ploughed a stylistic furrow at odds with the era’s predominant neo-realism. Ian Christie notes its relationship to the ilk of German expressionist work The Cabinet of Dr of Caligari , and it’s very true that the picture exerts a degree of mesmeric immersion rarely found in homegrown fare.