Learning the inner workings of a magic trick is almost always a bit of a disappointment. The magician’s flourish is what makes the show fun–see the nuts and bolts of his or her work, and the sense of wonder shatters. It’s fitting then, that surprise hit “Now You See Me” reflects the profession upon which it focuses: it’s most fun during the trick, and much less so when the curtain is pulled back for us. Still, it’s a fun summer fluff movie that transports and maybe even wows a bit–as long as you don’t look too close.
The setup: four up-and-coming magicians are contacted by a mysterious hooded figure and given a set of blueprints; a year later, they’re famous, giving standing-room-only shows and calling themselves The Four Horsemen. The misdirect: when one of the quartet’s magic tricks appears to rob a Parisian bank via long-distance teleportation from Las Vegas, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), along with some help from Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), start gumshoeing.
The reveal: well, that would be telling. The four magicians lead the FBI through a cat-and-mouse chase from Vegas to New Orleans to New York, and we see quickly that, in this case at least, it’s the mouse and not the cat calling the shots. Along the way, the two cops clash due to their differing styles–Rhodes is a magic denier while Dray pores over books about an ancient order called The Eye to understand the magicians’ motivation–and, of course, wind up falling for each other too.
“Now You See Me” is at its best when it’s performing. Director Louis Leterrier adroitly conveys the almost hokey faux-classroom setting of the magic show while keeping the tricks themselves unexpected and engaging. And it’s fun to run along with Rhodes and Dray as they attempt to solve the puzzle knowing that the four magicians–and the movie itself–are driving towards something bigger. “Now You See Me” engages in an effective inversion of dramatic irony, causing us to alternately cheer and jeer both pursuers and pursued.
But the film falters when it goes into explanation, particularly in the pseudo-deus ex machina character of Thaddeus Bradley (courtesy of the ever-enjoyable Morgan Freeman), an entrepreneur who exposes magicians’ tricks and seems to be able to decipher the Horsemen’s illusions by watching them from a balcony seat.
Bradley is a big part of the film’s ending twist, which unsurprisingly involves a vanished magician who has been name-dropped throughout “Now You See Me.” Unfortunately, the resolution manages to be both surprising and also disappointing. There’s an element of reverse Robin Hood-ism at play in the tricks the Horsemen put together at their anonymous instructor’s behest that doesn’t really pan out at all in the final reveal.
And then there’s that love story, which is deeply frustrating. Laurent’s Dray is probably the most interesting character in the movie thanks to her attempts to understand the Horsemen’s motivations instead of dismissing them. But when the film seems to come to a fake-out close about 3/4 of the way through without resolving the central mystery, she happily gives up and trots back to Paris. There’s something upsetting about the way “Now You See Me” diminishes Dray from a strong-willed, sympathetic female cop to little more than a walk-away love interest.
But really, Alma Dray’s character is a microcosm for the film’s overall flaws: a strong setup, a compelling second act and a hokey, pat resolution. It’s a summer movie that’s fun for the ride but leaves you a little empty when you get off. As one of the Four Horsemen puts it several times during “Now You See Me,” when it comes to magic, the closer you look, the less you end up seeing.
How right he is.