Now You See Me

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Louis Leterrier.          Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman.

The biggest problem with Now You See Me is that it never escapes from inevitable comparisons to The Prestige.  Both films concern rival magicians with at least one trying to uncover the others’ secrets, while the others attempt a dazzling, mind-blowing disappearing trick.  It does not help that Now You See Me also stars Michael Caine in role fairly similar to the mentor he played in The Prestige.  Nor does Morgan Freeman’s presence help the comparison, since he starred in three Christopher Nolan films along with Michael Caine, serving as another reminder of Nolan’s work.  Finally the line “you have to take a leap of faith,” which featured so prominently in Inception, is nearly as prominent here.

None of that is to say Now You See Me is a bad film.  For the most part, it remains fairly entertaining and cohesive, never becoming risible, but it stays about average, and everything in it has been done before and done much better, especially in The Prestige and Ocean’s 11.

The opening fifteen minutes serve as a prologue to introduce the magicians and bring them together, very similar to the prologue in Ocean’s 11 as Ocean recruits his assistants.  Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is a popular street magician known for his sleight of hand; Merritt McKinley (Woody Harrelson) a mentalist, hypnotist, and con artist;  Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) an illusionist, and Isla Fisher an escape artist.  All four are masters at their craft, which creates a problem.  They are so talented that their endeavors are never in jeopardy and there is no doubt that they will succeed at all the high-risk illusions they attempt.  Due to their level of skill, they all receive mysterious, anonymous invitation to collaborate on a unique magic show with an unknown purpose.

The four magicians call themselves the four horsemen.  Together they put on one of the most impressive magic shows in Las Vegas, which culminates with them robbing a bank in Paris and transporting the money to Las Vegas, which they pass out to the audience members, all via magic.  Since the Parisian bank that they claimed to rob was, in fact robbed, the FBI, led by Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), begins investigating the four horsemen.  Rhodes turns to embittered ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) for assistance in exposing the thieves.

Freeman’s presence in the movie is another major problem.  He plays the role decently, but his character is so knowledgeable that he removes nearly all of the suspense.  Almost as soon as a trick occurs, he reveals the secret to Rhodes and to the audience, preventing any overarching mystery or intrigue regarding how the four horsemen pulled off their crime.  Even the method of execution for their final, grandest crime is clear as soon as it occurs. The only mystery is the identity of the fifth horseman, who hired the magicians and is clearly their outside aid.

There are four possible outcomes for the identity of the fifth horseman.  Option A is quickly dismissed as the other horsemen turn against him.  Options B and C both seem clichéd and too obvious, and option D seems preposterous and farfetched.  Due to recollections of earlier scenes, the option that the film ends up going with works better than one would think, and most viewers probably would not see the twist coming.  However, there are several scenes when the fifth horseman plays along in character for the benefit of no one other than the camera and the audience.  Even though no other character is around the fifth horseman, he/she still acts the part that everyone else thinks is his/hers.  For instance, this character could easily have ignored pieces of advice that no one else knew about instead of going out of his/her way to give them credence.  I was not convinced the screenwriters knew who the fifth horseman would be until they got to the climax of the script, and went “Shoot!  We have to pick a character.”

The rationale for the fifth horseman’s actions is a run-of-the-mill revenge story, which the film glamorizes because the object of the revenge deserved it, and because the magic show was so spectacular that there is no reason to punish the magicians, who had good intentions anyways.  While the film’s light hearted sense of fun prevents it from ever taking itself too seriously, it undermines the serious moral shortcomings of all the characters.

That lighthearted sense of fun also prevents any sense of empathy for the characters or any character development.  Several potentially tragic scenes have no emotional pull, because it is obvious everything is going to work out for the best of the magicians.

Like many magic tricks, Now You See Me seems engaging and fairly impressive while it is being executed.  The performances are solid, and the mystery is intriguing enough to hold one’s interest.  Once the mystery is revealed; however, the big secret undermines the trick instead of illuminating it, showing the trick has very little substance and ultimately even less intrigue.

Content Advisory: Brief interrupted foreplay, some sexual dialogue, occasional profanity, several violent chase sequences, a couple faked deaths, and some rough language.                           MPAA rating: PG-13

Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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