The coolest magic trick in Now You See Me comes in the first scene. J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a Las Vegas illusionist, flicks a pack of cards briskly, then a bit more slowly, in front of a woman in the audience and asks her to think of one card she’s noticed. You, clever viewer, catch the briefest glimpse of the seven of diamonds and choose that one. Daniel hands the pack to the woman and asks if her card is there. It isn’t. As he gestures to the building next door, office lights appear on its glass façade in the shape of… the seven of diamonds. He fooled her; he fooled you. You being me.
The rest of Now You See Me, which brings four brilliant magicians into collision with various cops and charlatans, nearly fools you into thinking it’s a good movie. A clever construct with an attractive acting octet, the picture makes good on the magician’s credo of misdirection — leading you to look where the magic isn’t — and will keep you (kept me) guessing. And guessing wrong. If Now You See It resides below those two superb 2006 films on magicians, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, that’s because director Louis Leterrier has the energy but not the visual grace to match the elegant malefactions of his characters.
Among the quartet of prestidigitators, Daniel is the most successful, working medium-size rooms in Vegas. His former assistant, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), now has a good gig of her own: she escapes, Houdini-like, from sealed water tanks. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is the elder statesman and shaman; on a Vegas street corner, he reads the mind of a philandering husband and extracts a few hundred dollars from the mark so that his wife, hypnotized next to him, won’t discover his transgression. And Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, James’ handsomer brother) performs a spoon-bending act on the Staten Island Ferry before fleecing a passenger of his wallet and watch.
Each of them receives a Tarot card with instructions to convene in a Manhattan hotel room at 4:40 one afternoon. Within a year, their mystery patron has turned them into a supergroup called the Four Horsemen, headliners at the MGM Grand. Their gimmick: they rob banks, right there on the stage, and give the money to the audience. Attending their show is the one safe bet in Vegas. Why, here’s 3 million Euros, direct from a Paris vault.
(READ: Mary Pols on magic gone wrong in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone)
The script, by Ed Solomon (who wrote the original Bill & Ted and Men in Black movies), Boaz Yakin (the excellent urban drama Fresh, plus the disposable sequels to From Dusk Till Dawn and Dirty Dancing) and Edward Ricourt, believes in symmetry as much as in surprise, so it provides the Four Horsemen with four henchmen or pursuers. Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is their zillionaire Vegas backer, and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) a fraud-caster who exposes magicians’ tricks for the home-video market. The Horsemen’s Paris heist has stirred the interest of FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), an easily exasperated figure of fun who usually gets humiliated by the savvy illusionists — he seems less Poirot than Pierrot — and of Alma Dray (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent), who says she is an Interpol officer and signs on to help Rhodes. We wouldn’t be surprised if all these character names anagrammed into really sneaky eponyms.
Viewers with intelligent eyes will note the references to an old magician named Lionel Shrike, and to the Egyptian Eye of Horus, whose creator hoped to restore his father’s life. They may also wonder why the four magicians are so oddly incurious about the identity of the person who has brought them together. But even if you wait passively for the enigma to unravel, you should be diverted by the reunion of Eisenberg and Harrelson, two of the last survivors in Zombieland, and of Caine and Freeman, still a tandem after the completion of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Those two work niftily even without unworthy material. When Caine unaccountably threatens Freeman with a voodoo devil doll, both actors react as if they were amused but not humiliated by the lame trope.
The film’s magic feats were “inspired by David Copperfield” and supervised by David Kwong, a former DreamWorks animation exec who founded The Misdirectors Guild, a Hollywood club of illusionists and puzzle mavens. Every trick, from intimate business like card-shuffling to biggies like making a bank vault disappear, is deployed with grandeur and stupefying grace. All it lacks is being “live” — for the magic in an illusionist’s stage show depends on the audience existing in real time with the performer. His special effects aren’t computer pixels; he can’t cut to another angle, or try another take, to hide the trick. Moviegoers watching a record of the same illusions — unless they’re photographed in one integral shot, which these aren’t — may oooh in appreciation but will miss that thunderclap of ecstatic chagrin: the “I saw it and I still don’t believe it. But I saw it!”
A minor fault of the movie is that it’s content to skim the surface of duplicity. With few roiling emotions bubble in the climax, Now You See Me is all sleight-of-brain, no sleight-of-heart. A major complaint is Leterrier, who here shows he’s slight of talent. The helmer of The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans and the first two Transporter movies, he directs this one as if he were a traffic cop assigned to the Place de la Concorde. Photographing his stars in enormous closeups (virtually every director works for YouTube these days), Leterrier mistakes a magician’s misdirection for his own mis-direction. The story and cast have magic to do; Leterrier just keeps the cups moving over the hidden ball.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of The Incredible Hulk)
So the critic in me has his reservations; but me the moviegoer didn’t mind seeing Now You See Me. I was agreeably manipulated and outsmarted. And at the end I still had my wallet, my watch and my marital dignity.