“The closer you look, the less you see” is the mantra that Louis Leterrier’s heist film Now You See Me subscribes to, but a better choice might be “The closer you look, the less you care”. Any good magic trick relies on a number of factors. There’s the dazzling showmanship of the performance which is paramount, coinciding with the genuine attraction of something astonishing and unexplainable being done right in front of the audience’s eyes. If the final reveal isn’t all that exciting, or if the performer accidentally shows his hand, then the entire trick crumbles. And that’s kind of what Now You See Me turns out to be. It’s a film with a splashy premise and a group of stars any director would saw his wife in half for, but when all is said and done there’s very little the film actually has up its sleeve.
A shady, hooded figure monitors a group of magicians at varying stages of their careers: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is the brash showman; Merritt (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist and small-time con man; Henley (Isla Fisher) is Atlas’ former assistant turned successful escape artist; and Jack (Dave Franco) is young, athletic card sharp looking for his big break. Recruited by the mysterious watcher, they emerge a year later as the Four Horsemen, staging massive Vegas shows where they perform incredible feats of daring. Atlas, who is kind of the leader by sheer force of attitude, announces “We’re going to rob a bank”, and the audience is going to help do it. Picking one guy from the crowd at random, then magically teleporting him to a bank in France, the Horsemen somehow get their hands on the cash and spread it around to the astonished masses.
So these guys aren’t your average, every day criminals. Their Robin Hood-like crimes draw the attention of the FBI and the constantly perplexed Agent Rhodes. Saddled with the sexy and inquisitive Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent), Rhodes sets out to bring the Horsemen down, although he’s always about three steps behind. In true Mulder & Scully fashion, Rhodes and Vargas come from different schools of thought when it comes to magicians, and there’s the suggestion of a potential brewing romance that goes nowhere. The ubiquitous Morgan Freeman turns up in a largely professorial role (exactly what he’s best at) as a debunker of magicians, earning a tidy profit by exposing the Horsemen’s tricks. He shares some great screen time with fellow screen legend Michel Caine, who plays the Horsemen’s willing benefactor.
With Clash of the Titans, The Transporter, and The Incredible Hulk to his credit, Leterrier more than knows how to stage fun, stylish action sequences. Franco is the beneficiary of the best one in a fast-paced, close-quarters brawl involving flash paper and razor sharp card throwing expertise. Many of the other scenes defy any sort of logic and are designed simply to look gorgeous and keep you from thinking too much about the overly-complicated plot. A great job is done raising the mystery of the Four Horsemen’s invincible prowess, but when it comes time to provide answers….well, that’s a different story altogether.
There’s simply never a satisfactory explanation for how such an elaborate scheme, which involves fake deaths, people floating in bubbles, and others bursting into showers of cash, could be pulled off. It’s too dense of a plot, and the script is too deli-thin and lacking in finesse to hold up to even a shred of scrutiny. The screenwriters, one of which includes the generally talented Boaz Yakin, don’t seem too concerned with whether anything makes sense. Since none of the characters are developed particularly well, their perspective and motivations shift on a whim to serve the needs of the plot, rather than the other way around. What should be a funny, exciting heist film in the mold of Ocean’s Eleven requires way too much explaining. A desperate, last second twist makes so little sense it must have been freshly pulled out of someone’s butt. Rarely has a shock ending been so unsatisfying.
Movies about the art of magic and illusion are notoriously difficult to pull off. For every Incredible Burt Wonderstone that makes stage magic dull and uninteresting, there’s The Prestige that properly captures the allure. Now You See Me sits somewhere in between. It’s stylish, well-made, and gets a little mileage from the cast, but don’t fall for the sleight of hand that it’s anything more than that.