There’s a fine line sometimes, as This is Spinal Tap reminded us, between stupid and clever. Now You See Me wobbles along that tightrope for much of its running time, with a high-concept notion (magicians as robbers) and the low appeal of ripping off financial institutions as barefacedly as they stole from the public in the 2008 economic crash.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to rob a bank!” declares Jesse Eisenberg, as the illusionist Daniel Atlas, one of the quartet of magicians called the Four Horsemen, standing in the spotlight on a Las Vegas stage in suitably apocalyptic dark costumes.
His fellow Horsemen are a group of magicians and hustlers, whom we meet in the film’s opening minutes, each plying their trades in various cities. Mentalist Merritt McKinley (Woody Harrelson) blackmails a cheating husband while his wife is hypnotized; slinky escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) descends into a tank filled with piranhas, and card shark/pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) does a quick street scam. A year before their big Vegas premiere, the quartet were brought together by a mysterious mastermind in an empty New York flat where they were given instructions via hologram.
Now, these askew Robin Hoods have an agenda: Steal from the prudent (savings piled in stacks of bank notes in a Paris bank) and give to the profligate, raining cash down on the heads of an audience in a Las Vegas casino. There’s no doubt that the money leaves the Paris vault and ends up in Las Vegas hands moments later, but since the feat defies the laws of space and time, have they actually committed a crime?
Now You See Me, from French director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk), follows the model of Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans trilogy, with a sprawling cast, tourist-friendly destinations, lots of cat-and-mouse gamesmanship, and distractions. Whether we are intended to identify with the cat or the mouse becomes something of a problem.
As the Four Horsemen perform, they are watched by an FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and later his sidekick, Interpol agent Alma Dray (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent). Following the Four Horsemen is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician who now works as a professional magic debunker. Also involved is the Four Horsemen’s wealthy English promoter, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), who may or may not be the ultimate puppet master.
All too quickly, though, the smoke clears and Now You See Me proves to be less than meets the eye. One problem is that the razzmatazz of stage magic simply doesn’t translate well to the technology of movies. Though some filmmakers (Georges Méliès, Orson Welles and Woody Allen) were first drawn by stage magic, the achievements are fundamentally different. What wows in a live show elicits yawns in a film. When, in Now You See Me, Daniel causes a set of handcuffs to fly across a room and lock on someone’s wrist, it’s not an ingenious stunt, it’s a routine edit. For all the real use of illusion, the Four Horsemen might have been rodeo riders.
On a deeper level, the movie misses the basic rule of magic, which is controlling the audience’s attention. Throughout the film, characters gas on about the trick of manipulating focus (“the closer you look, the less you see”) which is exactly where the film collapses. Having started with the four magicians, the action randomly goes back and forth between them and agent Dylan, and his hostile/flirtatious buddy relationship with his French partner, Alma. We never spend enough time with either group to establish an empathetic connection with them, beyond finding Eisenberg’s Daniel snide and smug and Ruffalo’s Dylan huffy and irascible at constantly being several steps behind.
Magic, when it happens in movies or elsewhere, involves our pleasurable participation in being deceived. You may get tricked by Now You See Me, but rarely pleasurably. Some stunts in the film are elaborately explained, while others defy logic, beyond the needs of the director to provide chases and explosions. By the time the last giant rabbit is dragged out of the last oversized hat, we’re well past caring whether the bunny is alive or stuffed, and this not-clever-enough movie falls into the hole of “now you can forget it.”