Sunday, June 16, 2013
Now You See Me (review)
I had the privilege of seeing Now You See Me twice in theaters before writing this and regardless of whether you think it succeeds or fails as a movie one thing you cannot deny is its dedication to its premise. It is a movie about magic and (both implicitly and explicitly) a movie about the magic of movies. Where most movies will pause to take time and look at what's going on outside the main attractions, Now You See Me is all magic all the time. While it by no means achieves the same sort of depth or insight as Christopher Nolan's amazing magical drama The Prestige (2006), it's not exactly trying to. It has its own goals, and even if these goals are much more modest it reaches them in a very stylish and (for me at least) enjoyable way.
Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) are magicians brought together by a mysterious entity to perform an ensemble act in Las Vegas with the monetary support of entrepreneur/millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). However, when their first magic trick turns out to be robbing a bank, detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are put on the case to find out how they did it and put a stop to them. They quickly find themselves out of their league and are (sort of) assisted by Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man whose profession it is to expose magicians and their methods.
The cast reads like a who's-who of both recent (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo) and long-standing (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) movie stars, and both for that reason and for its style and content this film has a distinct Ocean's Eleven (2001) feel to it (although the latter is admittedly much closer to my heart). One difference between the two, however, is that Now You See Me places all of its emphasis on the magic to the point of almost completely ignoring character development. The only character the movie even attempts to develop is, ironically enough, Mark Ruffalo's grumpy and disbelieving detective (the guy trying to arrest the protagonists). This is rather strange considering the movie's tone with regard to the performers (and turns out to be a plot element in itself, if that makes any sense), but it's well managed and should keep you guessing until the end (you can figure out the twist if you stop watching the movie at a certain moment and think about it hard enough, but that's not the point).
This emphasis on plot over character does leave the world feeling a little flat, but for what it's trying to do this isn't a huge problem. The movie still manages to be quite enjoyable and got the audience laughing at both of my viewings. While the characters don't have much depth, what they're given allows them to play off each other and (no doubt due in part to the all-star cast) the acting will get you attached to at least one of the "Four Horsemen" (Harrelson and Franco tied for my favorites). There is one element that feels pretty superfluous: the romance between detective Rhodes and agent Dray. While Dray works as a great (false) foil to Rhodes, she's not given enough independent personality (as my girlfriend pointed out, you don't even really hear her name as she's constantly referred to as "french lady" or "hey you"), and with the general lack of development the relationship feels forced.
One thing I really liked about this film is its linking of stage magic with cinema magic (the art of deceiving or misdirecting the audience with cuts and other cinematic tools). Without giving too much away (minor spoilers, but nothing you wouldn't have already seen if you watched a trailer) there was one example of this in the movie's first act. The Four Horsemen send an audience member to rob a bank, and the director uses crosscutting to make the audience think he's really doing it when it's actually just a trap door leading to a duplicate safe. But they really did rob the bank (otherwise the police wouldn't be involved), so how did they do it? (You'll have to go see it to find out.)
The movie seems to have a general "If you love something, do it for the audience not for the money" message/attitude (they don't keep any of the money and give a big speech at the end). While I can be a huge sucker for this kind of thing at times, it gets somewhat problematic when you're charging at the door. It's like that awful song "Price Tag": if it really "ain't about the money" then what are you doing asking $10+ for the album? That said, this is definitely not the worst case of performing magic just for the money (I'm looking at you, superhero reboots/sequels/etc.) as Now You See Me is maybe one of the most original summer blockbusters in theaters right now (check out producer Peter McAlevey's article on the summer cinema situation) even if it is largely style over substance.
Two final notes. First, Henley, the only female magician, is a bit of a problem for me. While the other three magicians have their various magical specialties (Atlas has his cards and showmanship, McKinney is a mentalist, Wilder has sleight of hand and card-throwing), Reeves's unique feature seems to be being a woman. Solo acts are shown at the start to introduce the characters and hers is all about spectacle (the rip-away outfit is a little ridiculous). If you're going to force yourself to include a female magician maybe make her something more than an object.
Second, the cameraman needs to relax a little. The camera is constantly moving and usually in circles around its subject. While this definitely works to keep the audience on its toes and prevents them from being able to get their bearings, it can be a little much when it extends even to the establishing shots. If you're going to jump from Las Vegas to New Orleans, at least give your viewers a chance to breathe.
Three beers for being a fun escape from the summer sun but with completely one-dimensional characters; two Zizeks for trying to have a positive message which isn't developed enough and is possibly hypocritical.