Louis Leterrier. That name means different things to different people. But when telling a tale that’s a quasi-magical, quasi-heist film, he seems the perfect fit for this type of story. None of his films are known to contain very much substance, yet, on a cursory level, they are comprised of mostly breezy entertainment with a strong, and slightly fun visual sense. Smoke, mirrors, and misdirection are the tools of a magician and Leterrier works in the same medium, one where everything is an illusion; a hollow one with no great revelation behind the curtain, only disappointment.
That sounds incredibly harsh as Now You See Me, for most of the duration at least, is a pretty fun ride. It’s well shot, lead with a highly charismatic cast, and powered by Brian Tyler’s excellent and energetic score. Yet this film about smart and crafty illusionists doesn’t just make us feel dumb, it is just plain dumb offering very little, if anything, to ponder once the end credits roll. So where to begin? Ok, at the beginning then. Now You See Me is about four magicians/entertainers recruited by an unknown person to plan a series of master heists. These heists, which they perform in public, have a Robin Hood, or better ‘robbing for good’ theme as they give away all the money, never keeping a dime. Should they pull off all three jobs, they will be accepted to the upper echelon of the magic community – one that oddly they weren’t aware of, nor sought membership in the first place.
These smooth entertainers are introduced in a way that’s fun, swift and engaging, and that cadence is retained throughout the runtime. It’s a series of quick cuts showing what they (the soon to be called Four Horsemen) are best at, and foreshadows their talents to be used later on. Basically they’re all masters of distraction and distract they do. Each, whether playing the part or just being themselves, are performers with a knack for keeping your focus front and center. But while the story puts the spotlight on them they’re only as instrumental as their marks. They are brought together to help enact feats of magic and showmanship that are far bigger than themselves and indiscernible until it gets spelled out for us time and time again. Kind of condescending but how else will we know what just happened if we don’t get a Tarantino, let’s rewind it style of exposition?
Convoluted? Sure, but also paper thin, and the whole film is a tryout to see if these characters make the cut. Their specific trades, a magician (Jesse Eisenberg), an escape artist (Isla Fisher), a mind-reader (Woody Harrelson), and a slight of hand street performer/con-man (Dave Franco), will aide in this master plan for which they have all been, for lack of a better term, employed by their elusive but well-resourced financier. They’re a charismatic bunch and for so called con-men you couldn’t have picked a more disarmingly likable bunch. However as much as the Horsemen seem to be two steps ahead of everyone else and just oozing coolness they are still just facilitating someone else’s elaborate tricks in a game so big that we the audience can’t see the edge of the board.
Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg lead this all-star cast and had such great chemistry in Zombieland that they easily parry witty and sarcastic jabs at one another to equal if not better results. Eisenberg has grown a lot in the past few years and has this oddly magnetic leading man potential and he must have learned a thing or two from David Fincher as he again takes up the bravado he brandished as Zuckerberg. Harrleson’s trick is targeted guessing; he can’t really read minds but he’s a hypnotist who is really good at reading people. Isla Fisher’s character is cute but not good for much else and Dave Franco’s character is a that of a street magician who doesn’t really have much of a role until later in the film.
Yet once he gets his chance to shine it’s one of the most entertaining elements of the film giving the story a much needed shot of adrenaline. It’s a sequence that is wonderfully and breathlessly shot and edited gives Leterrier a chance to really put his mark on the film with his style of actiony goodness that doesn’t disappoint. Also if Christoph Waltz has picked up another Oscar and been typecast in more than a few films, it’s so very good to finally see Melanie Laurent in something, as the wet behind the ears Interpol agent following the Horsemen, but she deserves more than this.
Now You See Me tries again and again to remind us not to look too close, for doing so will cause us to miss the bigger picture, the grand design, the, whatever. When all is said and done the events don’t feel like anything was earned, neither for us or characters we’re supposedly endeared to, and the elaborate cat and mouse game is moderately enjoyable at best. It leaves a lot of questions and there aren’t just plot holes, there are giant gaping parts of the plot the audience must try to traverse. We get the why and the how to some degree but it still doesn’t answer much like who these people really are, their motivations and just how are these four characters able to do/set up everything they did? Maybe it’s better left a mystery (after all that’s the point of magic) because every other explanation seems as hollow as someone proclaiming they found a quarter behind you ear.
Most of the film, especially the ending, is a convoluted mess of flashy lights. Now You See Me is a cup game which is nearly impossible to guess or figure out because there are too many variables (yet too little to go on), too much smoke and too many mirrors. Again it makes us feel a little dumb when the film has to spell it all out, however, the plot necessitates an ending with so much explanation that tries to justify why we should care about its big wow ending. But the ending, as grand and ambitious as Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin had planned, and despite Leterrier’s very best efforts, it plays out so trite, nonsensical, and forced that it lacks the impact of an equally sleek caper film like Ocean’s 11 had. But don’t worry, that’s not spoiling anything for you. Now You See Me has a lot going for it, but sadly, for all the fun to be had and the potential both behind the camera and it front, it all comes up short of spectacular.