Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Cinema File #193: “Now You See Me” Review

When I reviewed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I remarked upon my passion and fascination for the secret world of real magicians, the closest thing we have to modern day superheroes (not counting actual superheroes). Its why I love The Prestige so much, watching two titans in the craft of mystery and trickery wielding powers that are seemingly supernatural but amassed purely through talent and discipline, in a world just this side of normal. Now You See Me is a movie about real world magic that falls somewhere in between the admittedly very wide chasm between those two other movies I just mentioned, and while it has its obvious flaws, it is nonetheless unabashedly entertaining pretty much from beginning to end.

The story follows a quartet of expert street magicians recruited by a mysterious fifth to construct and pull off an elaborate multi-step scheme involving heists, Robin Hood style thievery, and straight up revenge within the context of a stage magic tour. When the team's very public and very large scale exploits run afoul of the feds, we see through law enforcement's eyes as the larger plan unfolds, involving corporate malfeasance, professional debunkers, secret societies, and a dark and tragic history coming back to haunt certain interested parties. Nothing is as it seems, at least for a while, until we eventually see just how clever everyone is, bouncing from one “How'd they do that” trick/reveal cycle to the next until the final act.

It's going to sound like I'm bashing this movie a lot, because the things I had a problem with take a lot of explaining, but I assure you, I did enjoy this film quite a bit. As a big budget summer popcorn movie, its up there with the best of the year so far, and not being directly adapted from anything I love, it lacked any of the fan boy betraying elements of the last two big ones Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. That being said, it does have its problems. The first of these is that ultimately, it is overly complicated in its setting. The futuristic elements like holograms and high tech wizardry only serve as a hindrance when you realize that everything the characters are doing can be done without any of it. Apart from the scale and unrealistically insane level of preparation needed to pull off this plan, this could have been an otherwise real world story, which would have lent a little more legitimacy to the action.

And high tech gadgets aren't the only unnecessary thing cluttering this movie that simply didn't have to be there. About half way through, the concept of secret societies is introduced, promising the possibility of real magic which thankfully never comes to spoil the fun. This Illuminati of Magic element is not only completely pointless and corny, but makes the film's plot more convoluted than it needs to be or should be. At times the movie feels like it doesn't know whether it wants to be an Inside Man style revenge plot or a weird semi-sequel to National Treasure for the stage magic set. That it juggles both in such a way as to still result in a mostly cohesive and fun experience is an accomplishment, but one that didn't have to be made if the filmmakers hadn't treated simplicity like a four letter word.

The four main characters are instantly likable in that somewhat forced Sherlock Holmes Mary Sue kinda way, where we respond to their being, as they put it, “the smartest guys in the room,” and its to the film's credit that this never really gets annoying. I'm on record expressing my general distaste for Jesse Eisenberg, but here I think his typical doucheness kind of works for the type of character he's playing. At the same time, Dave Franco plays against type as the good hearted neophyte of the group, which also strangely works. Woody Harrelson is always good, and no less here as the wily mentalist, and the only one I would say is entirely miscast is Isla Fisher, who I usually like, but I don't think has the femme fatale chops this kind of role demands of her.

Also, I'm not sure who the protagonists and the antagonists are supposed to be in this movie. We start off with the magicians, then shift to Mark Ruffalo's FBI agent chasing them, and the movie continuously springs from one to the other's perspective as if I'm supposed to root for both of them in their mutually exclusive goals. Then you throw in Morgan Freeman's enigmatic ex-magician, who seems to be against both of them, but also a good guy, or maybe not. This ordinarily wouldn't be a problem except that by the end, it seems like we are meant to make a clear demarcation between who deserves to win and who deserves to lose this increasingly complicated game, and with the exception of the unrepentantly vile casino magnate played by Michael Caine, I'm not sure why the movie thinks I should be happy about the outcomes for any of the characters.

In my review for Star Trek Into Darkness, I noted that I was surprised by the reveal of the villain's true identity only because I did not expect the writers to do something so predictable and frankly silly. This is now the second movie in 2013 produced by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci where I can say this, and it pissed me off just as much here. There is a point where you might begin to suspect a certain character as the secret benefactor of the main magic crew if only because they are the person you might least suspect, and if you're like me, you might reject this suspicion, because surely such an otherwise well thought out movie wouldn't do something so stupid. And then they do. I can't explain how this hampers the movie in retrospect without spoiling it, but suffice to say, its bad enough that it almost ruins the entire movie for me.

I say almost, because despite all of my qualms with it, I must admit that Now You See Me does what it sets out to do and delivers on what it promises. Its light, action packed, full of twists, turns, and mis-directions, and most of all, its just fun as hell to watch play out. I'm tempted to paraphrase the film itself and just caution you not to look too closely, or you'll miss the big picture where the trick actually springs up on you from plain sight. Its intricacies are largely a facade to mask a much more straight forward escapist jaunt that leads you to want to over think it until you realize you've been had. Or maybe I'm giving the film too much credit, but what the hell, I enjoyed myself immensely, and chances are you will too.
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