So, why are there three movies about magicians seeing release in 2006? And why hasn’t Caryn James turned her piercing insight to this burning question? The world needs a trend-piece damnit!
We at Reverse Shot try to avoid silly cultural-moment analyses; though I could argue that the perfect storm of war malaise, terrorism fears, and waning belief in the credibility of our government necessitates the introduction of the magician character into popular fictions (always a ready mirror of our collective unconscious, of course) that would be, well, stupid. Especially given the obvious disparities between our three magickally-inclined pictures.
Scoop’s gotten something of a bad rap from Reverse Shot, though I’m tempted to call it the best comedy of the summer. It’s certainly half-assed and thin, but when Woody sets up an early sequence in which his “Great Splendini” performs a series of similarly half-assed and thin magick tricks and intercuts them with shots of rapturously applauding Brits (Kuleshov anyone?), it’s pretty obvious that he knows the score. So what if the shooting is of the plant-the-camera-and-let-it-roll variety, or that Johansson’s Brooklyn accent is often about as credible as Giamatti’s stutter in Lady in the Water? Allen is undeniably hilarious, and the running gag of his familiar nebbish’s encounters with the upper crust of British society never wears thin. Imagine that Allen looked at the failed diptych structure of Melinda and Melinda and decided the whole thing might have worked better as a two site-specific pictures: One Dostoyevsky and one Vaudeville. Hence Match Point and Scoop were born. The real magick of Scoop is how Allen and the audience easily acknowledge the overall flimsiness of the project, yet still find entertainment in the proceedings.
I only saw The Illusionist because I happened to surf into Jonathan Rosenbaum’s rave at the Chicago Reader. After watching it, I’m not quite sure what he’s on about as the film seems to short-circuit broader inquiry into credulousness at every turn. It should be obvious to most viewers by about mid-way through the film that some fix that will eventually lead to a “patented Shyamalan twist-ending” (it’s awfully nice to not hear talk of this fallacy this summer) is on; if its not, I’d suggest frequenting the cinemas more regularly. Sure, Giamatti’s final revelation (though I find his performance here ridiculous, not “highly expressive”) is perhaps only one possible interpretation of the events among many, the film doesn’t work to suggest some sort of expanding complexity, whether or not Eisenheim can actually “do” magick is already beyond the point.
I’d hoped that the The Illusionist was going to be a further-west counterpart to Werckmeister Harmonies (magick act rolls into town and truly roils the masses into unrest), but director Burger pulls back from open revolt. However, my major quibbles with The Illusionist are less conceptual and more technical. Its production value certainly ranks amongst the best in recent memory—the lighting is supple and appropriately suggestive and the art direction is velvety rich. Overall, it’s the kind of setting Visconti might have really luxuriated in, and here lies the rub: Where the Italian would have made full visual use of the spaces afforded him, the American can barely manage to conjure a handful of memorable images leaving the whole film feeling terribly small and often dingy. A few pieces of elliptical flashback are teasingly evocative, but the rest, for a movie about an illusionist feels awfully straightforward. Though, I will give Burger credit for conjuring what may be Jessica Biel’s first truly successful big-screen performance (sorry Stealth fans).
And last, but most certainly not least, the awfully titled (I don’t care if this is a magickal term implicated in the plot, it’s still awful) The Prestige. Looking like some mix of The Omen (does Christian Bale get to play Satan-esque again?) and The Illusionist, I can’t say I’m terribly excited by the prospect of this one, but then I’ve also seen Hoot, Ultra Violet, Stick It and a host of other tripe this year, so I can’t truly stick my nose up at Christopher Nolan film, no matter how silly it looks. And casting Michael Caine as a character named “Cutter” might suggest a bit of sleight-of-hand inventiveness. Still, how many times in the trailer do folks utter variances on “Maybe he can really do magick!” (probably only once, but it sure seemed like at least thirty)….