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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.


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