Friday, June 7, 2013

NOW YOU SEE ME Is Anything But Magical


- I had a good feeling about NOW YOU SEE ME. It felt like one of those under-the-radar summer sleepers that might steal some thunder from some of the more high-profile releases. Sure, it didn't have superheroes or Vin Diesel, but it had reliable vets (and Dark Knight cast members) like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, exciting newcomers like Jesse Eisenberg and Melanie Laurent, The Hulk (aka Mark Ruffalo), and hey, it was about magic to boot. I know they say magic is box-office poison (as Steve Carell and Jim Carey can attest), but hey, who doesn't love a good movie about magicians - especially when said magicians use their magic to solve and/or perpetrate crimes? Apparently, many people had the same hunch about this movie I did, because it was in fact a sleeper hit at the box office, making many more millions than originally projected.

That's all well and good, but there's one major problem: the movie itself is a mess. I went in with high hopes, and came out frustrated and annoyed at all the squandered potential. Like I said, the movie's got magic, an all-star cast, and hey, I even count myself a fan of director Louis Leterrier (loved the first Transporter, thought The Incredible Hulk was underrated, and thought Clash of the Titans had some great visuals marred by a flat script). So what happened? First and foremost, I blame a lot of the movie's faults on a weak and totally nonsensical script.

The movie's plot hints at something very ambitious, but none of it adds up to anything. The basic story is this: four magicians, each with a different magical specialty, are brought together by a mysterious, unseen benefactor, and convinced to join forces as a sort of all-star magic act known as The Four Horsemen (a poor choice of name - not only because the group is supposed to be inspiring, but hey, it's a name that's sort of been used once or twice already, ya' know?). The Horsemen are, on the surface, an assemblage of high-profile magicians who perform together. But their act - which includes magical stunts like robbing banks from afar - is not just for show. In fact, they are *actually* robbing banks and stealing money, though their magical methods make it hard for the police to pin any crimes on them. Meanwhile, the Horsemen's crimes have a Robin Hood-esque populist slant - stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, etc. - and they become heroes to the 99%, even as they officially become outlaws.

The magicians are the best thing about the movie. For one, it's fun to see how each one has a different, superhero-esque talent. Jesse Eisenberg's J. Daniel Atlas is a street magician with bad attitude to spare. Isla Fischer's Henley is a stage performer specializing in daring escapes, with a major flair for theatrics. Woody Harrelson's Merrit is a shifty hypnotist, not above using his craft to make a quick buck. And Dave Franco is a drifter who specializes in sleight of hand. All four of these actors do a nice job, and it's fun to see them interact - Eisenberg and Fischer as the bickering ex-partners, Harrelson as the shady uncle of the group, and Franco as the punk kid who is more talented than he knows.

But for some reason, the movie severely limits their screen time. Instead, the should-be main characters of the film are given the short shrift in favor of those pursuing them - Ruffalo's Vegas cop Rhodes, and Laurent's Interpol agent Alma Dray. A huge chunk of the movie centers on their investigation, and its easily the most bland and boring part of the movie. Their scenes have a dulling sense of repetition, not helped by an elder-statesman magician played by Morgan Freeman who acts as their adviser on all things magic. While it's always nice to see Freeman, his role here amounts to a lot of smarter-than-thou lecturing, a lot of scolding Ruffalo for not understanding magic, magicians, etc. It gets old, especially when we'd rather be spending time with the Horsemen.

As for Ruffalo, I hate to say it, but he seems to be phoning this one in a bit. He's all passive-aggressive smiles and clenched jaws, constantly acting like the worst cop ever. Meaning, because he's written as a character who hates magic, has no time for childish things, etc., that is made to carry over into his investigation of a criminal case. But instead of just sitting down and talking to Freeman and getting info on his suspects, it's just him constantly whining about hating magic. To add one more layer to the character's annoying-factor, he has the most forced romantic tension with Laurent's Alma ever. The characters seem to basically dislike each other throughout the entire movie, except, you know, when they're actually in love and stuff. Because they are two cops working a case at odds with each other (Laurent is all into magic), so, of course, they must secretly be in love.

And since we spend so little time with the Horsemen, we really have little clue into what the hell they're doing. Like I said, there seems to be a Robin Hood-meets-Banksy element to their crimes - populism meets performance art - but why exactly they're doing what they're doing, or what their end game is, we don't quite know. The movie uses the fact that they're acting out the wishes of their hidden benefactor as an excuse to keep things vague. But the payoff the mystery is so weak that it doesn't do anything to absolve the movie's copious story and character issues. I'll just say that the absurdity reaches its peak in the final act, as the Horsemen prepare to pull off their final heist, all while eluding Ruffalo and a battalion of cops. The entire sequence is so vague and murky. What are the Horsemen trying to pull off? Why? Why are huge crowds gathered to see them perform a grand trick that essentially amounts to a big light show? It's the epitomy of anticlimax. There is a lot of ambiguous talk about the Horsemen wanting to "bring magic back into the world" and whatnot, but what that means in the context of the movie, I have no idea.

But here's the thing: the movie compounds its problems by centering itself around the central mystery of the benefactor's identity - all so it can close out with a huge twist ending. No spoilers here - just a warning that, to me at least, it's one of the lamest and cheapest twist endings I've seen in a movie in a while - the kind that basically INVALIDATES THE ENTIRE MOVIE IN RETROSPECT. Given the big ending reveal, so much of what happened in the rest of the movie no longer makes sense that it hurts my head to think about it. Worse, the explanation of the twist is so silly and unworthy ... just prepare your hand, because you will be face-palming yourself upon hearing it.

One other thing I'll say about the movie - it's about stage magicians, and it does try to respect the craft of magic and illusion. Some of the more interesting parts of the movie are when we go behind-the-scenes of the various illusions we see performed. But, the movie also has a supernatural element to it that is pretty absurd. Full disclosure: I am a total sucker for stories about stage magic vs. "real" magic and the intersection of the two. But since 95% of this movie is trying to be a semi-grounded heist movie that explains the reality behind its illusions, the 5% of it that deals with "real", legit, mystical magic feels totally out-of-left-field and groan-worthy.

As for Leterrier, he gives the movie some kinetic flair, but predictably, he excels with the scenes that are *supposed* to feel big and epic and crazy, but seems a bit lost with the smaller-scale stuff. I think Leterrier's penchant for big, epic action actually hurts the movie in some ways, because a lot of the movie is shot as if we were watching The Avengers, when in fact nothing all that amazing is happening on screen. Like, that final trick of the Horsemen - it's shot with sweeping cameras, plunging angles, a huge sense of scale - all for a scene in which nothing all that huge is happening. There's definitely a bit of a disconnect. The one sequence where everything comes together like magic (yep, I went there), is an awesomely-staged fight scene between Ruffalo and Franco, in which Franco counters his opponent's size advantage with a furious flurry of magic-based offense, including Gambit-style card-throwing and evasive, now-you-see-me, now-you-don't illusions. It's the one sequence in the movie that seems to perfectly pair Leterrier's talents with the material.

On the other hand, the entire movie is, undoubtedly, elevated by its cast. There are scenes that are just plain fun to watch, because you get to see Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine snipe at each other in a battle of the awesome old dudes, or because Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg get to tag-team as a pair of underestimate-'em-at-your-own-peril underdogs, or because Woody Harrelson is so fun and funny trying to blatantly hit on a not-having-it Isla Fischer. The cast makes the movie watchable and breezily entertaining even when it probably shouldn't be.

However, the great cast, combined with the movie's fun subject matter and glimpses of potential, make its failure to hit a home run that much more frustrating. Even when certain scenes work well, the overall structure of the movie - hinging on a big twist, focusing on the cops rather than the magicians - is so broken that a few cool scenes can't salvage it. It adds up to a movie that tries hard to feel smart and clever, but ends up feeling sort of dumb. It might make you wish you had just re-watched The Prestige.

My Grade: C

No comments:

Post a Comment