Film Review – Now You See Me
Magic is a tough act to transition to the big screen. Already about the art of misdirection and illusion, the added ability for editing makes it feel even more manipulative and fake. Because of this, there are very few great movies about magic (The Prestige and Magic pop to mind), and the more successful ones focus less on the magic and more on the story of the magician. Still, the trailer for Now You See Me caught my attention because it used magic as a backdrop for a heist movie, a combination I thought might work well.
The film is directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans), a filmmaker who is strongly predisposed towards action, something that might have given me pause if I hadn’t looked into the movie before seeing it. This explains one of the problems with movie, though, because stylistically it doesn’t feel cohesive; the story feels like it should be a mystery thriller, but the film is directed like an action movie. It’s edited with a lot of fast cuts, there is way more camera movement than feels appropriate, and by the end, it becomes so CGI-heavy it starts to lose the loose grip it had on reality. But even though the pieces don’t fit seamlessly together, it is still one of Leterrier’s better projects.
The story is structured around three performances by a group of four magicians known as the Four Horsemen, modern day Robin Hoods robbing from the rich during their performances, while being doggedly pursued by the cops and magic debunkers. The three performances are a perfect template for how the three-act structure of films is supposed to work (introduction, raise the stakes, resolution), but the minutia between them loses a lot of steam. The magic shows themselves are fairly fun (overlooking the editing/CGI issues); the real challenge of watching the movie lies in how it feels like two different films were spliced together: a story of magicians and a story of cops vs. robbers. If that isn’t enough, there is a subplot about a secret society of magicians, with Leterrier clearly coming from the filmmaking school of more is more (aka Luc Besson University).
Now You Seen Me has a lot going on…probably too much, as it has to juggle between the magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco), their bankroll (Michael Caine), the debunker (Morgan Freeman), and the cops (Mélanie Laurent, Mark Ruffalo). But this is one of those unique films where while there is virtually no character development, almost all the performances are still entertaining and enjoyable. From top down the cast is engaging, despite most of the characters being completely one-dimensional. The problem is there is a surplus of acting talent and the filmmakers clearly didn’t want to leave anyone short-changed in getting their screen time, so instead of creating a few great characters, they have created a lot of cute concepts without much substance. While everyone in the cast is likeable and entertaining, Mélanie Laurent still finds a way to stand out. Her charm and enthusiasm is so engaging that once again her performance steals the film. She proves that it isn’t about how much screen time you have—it is what you do with it.
There is a fundamental problem with combining magic and a heist movie that didn’t occur to me until I was watching it happen. Part of the fun in heist thrillers are the twists and turns, and when a film uses magic as the backdrop, the viewer is even more predisposed to not believe anything they see. This comes to a head in the last third of the film, when twists begin to be revealed. By that point, most of the twists are easy to predict, and it seems like in an effort to keep the audience on their toes, the filmmakers just started to make up twists purely for shock purposes rather than having a concrete vision in mind. While most of the magic feels entertaining (albeit cheapened by the editing), it still feels grounded in some basic plausibility. But by the end, all rules are off the table. There is an underlying notion that magic is a “leap of faith” and you need to let yourself buy in, but it never really feels like the filmmakers have done enough to earn your trust as they go into the absurd.
Now You See Me is definitely a flawed film; in fact, the more I think about it, the more flaws come to mind. While the premise is entertaining and the cast is enjoyable, it feels like somewhere inside there is a great film that wanted to come out, but they weren’t quite sure how to make that happen. It really just makes me want to re-watch The Prestige.
Final Grade: B
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Dave Franco.