There’s about two ways to show magic on screen — the first is demonstrating the tricks, usually in an unbroken shot (if they’re smart), and hope it’s almost like being there in person. When Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is introduced, it looks like they’re going this way. He asks someone from the crowd to pick a card, and he flips through the deck. He says he went too fast, so he does it again. Now we’re seeing this from the face in the crowd’s perspective, so the trick is played like it’s for us.
One card is shown a millisecond longer than the others, and that fraction is so perfectly timed that you notice it, but don’t notice whether you’re supposed to notice it. When the cards are flipped through again, you see it again. Then, when Atlas fans out the deck and asks if it’s in there and you don’t notice it, you realize you’ve been fooled. How that sequence is timed is so good, it’s the show-stopper.
The second way is to focus on the showmanship, and we get that in the following bit with Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), a gifted hypnotist but, more accurately, grifter who can pick up visual cues from marks, expose their darkest secrets, then blackmail them.
And while those two beats work very well, the movie never quite reaches that level again, nor does it decide which way to stick with. The succeeding two magicians we meet, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a straight-up thief, and Henley Reeves (Ilsa Fisher), a straight-up escape artist whose routine isn’t anything different from your standard Penn & Teller stunt — except, without, you know, Penn & Teller.
They’re gathered by a mysterious figure, become a successful team for about a year, and then start robbing banks.
This puts FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) on their trail, and, since the bank they robbed was in France, Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Inglourious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent) joins the fray. And, as an added bonus, there’s Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley, a guy who’s made his career debunking magic acts. Annnnd finally there’s Michael Caine as the big evil businessman guy whose bankrolling the team.
This is a tough call — it’s not a movie I’d recommend, but if someone we’re interested in checking it out, I wouldn’t stop them either. It looks fine, Melanie Laurent is unbelievably gorgeous (despite some awkward dialogue; she is speaking in her second language), and the group is fun to watch, but just as we get acquainted with them, the film switches to Rhodes’s story. As fine an actor as Ruffalo is, I’d rather be watching the others. And Freeman is your standard info-dump — the guy who shows up to explain how everything was done and remind everyone else that they’re in over their heads.
As a heist film, it worth a good Friday poke, but it the magician angle doesn’t work quite as well as it should since pretty much all contemporary heist movies (the Ocean series, for example) hinge on the reveal anyway — the draw is the dynamic of its characters, and that’s mostly absent. And the script feels so superficially obligated to deliver a mind-bending twist that you’ll probably come upon it after a few minutes’ thought but dismiss it because it doesn’t make any damn sense. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) wants to upstage Christopher Nolan (and Danny Boyle with this year’s Trance) — aside from robbing his acting stalls — in the whole head-scratching-meta-loop details, but the conceit comes off as just silly.
Any movie that makes illusion its premise will succeed or fail depending on how much you need to suspend your belief. Now You See Me asks for a lot, and at more than a few critical moments — hypnotism and the outrageous preparation of some stunts are among the queerest instances — but all that aside, it is freckled with some delightful sequences — the interrogation, a great disappearing effect, some good one-liners, and, one that’s not spoiled by the trailer — a very clever fight.