David Copperfield once famously quipped to Johnny Carson, that the difference between a trick and an illusion is “about $40,000.” And certainly, in recent years magic has gone from something defined by either birthday party tricksters or arena selling professionals, into a piece of slick entertainment that also includes legitimate street performers, reality show stars and much more. (In fact, one of the best in the world right now might be a guy you never heard of named Apollo Robbins). And it’s against this new face of the industry where “Now You See Me” starts (as partially seen in the opening four minutes that dropped online), with a group of random performers — ranging from the skyscraper theatrics of J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) to the mentalism hustle of Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) — individually and mysteriously brought together by a shadowy figure for what becomes the ultimate illusion.
A year after forming, and now titled collectively as The Four Horsemen — with Daniel’s former assistant turned pro Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and up-and-comer Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) rounding out the group — they find a backer in the wealthy Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), but are soon are on the radar of the authorities. The conclusion of their latest show finds them seemingly robbing a bank in Paris, showering the money on the audience, and doing it all without leaving their Las Vegas stage. It isn’t long until the FBI and Interpol — represented by Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) respectively — are hot on their tail, eager to arrest them for what’s clearly a crime, but unable to prove just how they did it. All they can do is track them from gig to gig, where their illusions get even grander, and potentially more illegal, trying to finally decipher how they are pulling these capers off. And it’s not just the feds who have an interest in exposing them — so too does Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes his living revealing the tricks of the trade, and hopes figuring out the methods of The Four Horseman can earn him his biggest payday yet.
And that’s about all the story there is to reveal without spoiling too much because the concept of “Now You See Me” is something of a narrative illusion itself. Penned by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, the audience too is kept in the dark not only about how these guys pull off the tricks, but why they’re doing it and who’s behind it, in a screenplay that builds up much like a Las Vegas show to the big reveal. As The Four Horseman’s plans get even more audacious, the mystery and motivation becomes trickier to discern, with the movie taking on the momentum of a cinematic sleight-of-hand to certain degree, and at first it’s pretty compelling stuff. And while that ambition is certainly admirable, and though it never feels like a gimmick, the construct of the story does lead to a lacking in some other elements of the movie.
Most notably, “Now You See Me” often falls prey to lengthy flashback-and-exposition sequences to update the audience on where we are in terms of the story, alliances, background information and secrets that need to be clarified before things can move ahead. And moreover, once it’s revealed how The Four Horsemen pulled off some of these jobs, they strain credulity near to the breaking point, especially when the goal of their endeavour finally divulged. It’s hard to believe this much effort, risk and planning went into a long con, where the payoff for the four…well, you’ll soon discover it yourself. And this need for the script to constantly be resetting the storyline, leaves the characters somewhat one note and adrift. Part of this is in service of the illusion-like narrative, which has more than a bit of purposeful misdirection throughout, but it still leaves pretty much everyone playing types instead of characters, though this cast certainly helps fill in some of the blanks.
Even though they’re not given much off the page to work with, pretty much everyone seems to be having a blast doing it, with Eisenberg, Ruffalo and Harrelson most of all enjoying the ride. Caine and Freeman too get some good mileage out of their tete-a-tete scenes. (And while Fisher and Laurent bring their charm, they still don’t quite flesh out underwritten parts). But director Louis Leterrier — whose last two efforts were the considerably larger scaled, more effects-driven “Clash Of The Titans” and “The Incredible Hulk” — rightly realizes that the engine of “Now You See Me” is built around its house of mirrors story, and smartly uses the talents of his cast to help keep everything moving forward, even if some of the individual parts aren’t as strong as they could be. After all, sleight-of-hand is about losing the recipient in the moment, and the movie tries its best to keep that card up its sleeve hidden for as long as possible…
…but when it’s all unveiled… it doesn’t quite add up on close scrutiny, though it’s commendable for keeping the big reveal as contained as long as it does. But the story doesn’t seem to know when the trick has finished and the movie tags on one too many endings (including a somewhat forced suggestion that leaves a door open for a sequel, which seems to be requisite these days), including a romantic angle that is too undercooked to deserve as much play as it gets. However, “Now You See Me” does also earn some marks for being something of a rarity in the blockbuster field — it’s interesting to note that unlike many summer movies this year, this is one that doesn’t lean on heavy CGI, superheroes or explosions (indeed, the only “action sequence” here is a car chase). And Leterrier’s film is a reminder that sometimes a good yarn can do enough heavy lifting on its own to provide thrills. Whether or not the illusion pays off will be up to you, but the trick itself may be intriguing enough. [B-]