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Now You See Me (2013)

"Meh" is for Magic

I'm sorry for using "meh" in this review's title. The pseudo-onomatopoeic word that started out as Internet short-hand for "anything that fails to leave an impression" has become our hundred-forty-character culture's go-to method for avoiding next-level thought about things that disappoint or confuse us. Rather than dig into the meat of a bad idea, fad, or meme, it's so much easier to drop a "meh" bomb and keep moving. It ostensibly shows how "above it all" the commenter is, and makes everyone else feel stupid for giving a damn in the first place.

I'm guilty of this myself, of course. But reading that gross little assembly of letters spikes my shame gauge every time--and every time, I vow to never stoop to such dismissiveness again. The filmmakers behind Now You See Me should feel honored, I guess, for driving me to take a fire-axe to their "meh" experience of a movie--one hundred percent guilt free.

If you haven't seen it yet, you might think I'm crazy for coming down on such a fun, hip-looking caper flick. From the trailers, director Louis Leterrier's "Ocean's Eleven with magic" appears to combine all the effects wizardry of a summer blockbuster with the legitimacy of an eclectic cast of actors--not just stars. Indeed, it's a great idea to have Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco play a misfit collective of street magicians who are given enough money and power by a mysterious benefactor to realize their greatest illusions yet. Because these hustlers' first big display involves stealing millions of Euros from a French bank,  they attract the attention of a grizzled FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo), an Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent), and a professional "magic debunker" (Morgan Freeman).

Michael Caine pops up, too, but at this stage of the game, his presence doesn't necessarily indicate quality acting as it does rolling cameras and a cleared check.

Yep, this sounds like a winner on paper. Unfortunately, the ideas on that paper were fleshed out by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt. Not to slam them as writers in general, but in this specific case, they've so utterly wasted a great opportunity as to inversely prove the old adage about monkeys and typewriters. I won't venture too far into spoiler country here; as much as I can't recommend Now You See Me to anyone, this is one of the best warnings to would-be filmmakers we're likely to get.

The movie collapses under the weight of three big problems. Let's work our way up from least to greatest, beginning with the direction. Leterrier is known for directing hyperkinetic, CG-infused action films like The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2, and the Clash of the Titans remake. It's arguable whether or not that style ever works unchecked, but it's definitely suited more to those kinds of cartoon fantasies than in an ostensibly reality based popcorn thriller. Perhaps he was chosen for this gig based on the film's tag-line, "The closer you look, the less you'll see": the constantly swirling and zooming camera offers such a nauseating distraction that you may forget you paid to see a story and not just cheap stage magic.

Second, the film's writers want so badly to do a summer-movie take on The Usual Suspects that they fail to consider the possibility of smart people going to see their film, too. Now You See Me is so packed with misdirection, red herrings, and random finger pointing that, even if the identity of the secret mastermind was not obvious at about the half-way point, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Just as an audience will eventually fail to register the spectacle of special effects in a film that's wall-to-wall explosions, a mystery loses its charm when literally everyone in the cast has a twitchy-eyebrow zoom-in at some point during the show.

The beauty of The Usual Suspects is that criminal mastermind Keyser Soze's identity was a cool, overshadowing secret, but it wasn't the main thrust of the film. The audience likely wouldn't have cared if it never learned his identity, or if it turned out he'd been a fabrication the whole time, because the characters (and, by extension, us) so firmly bought into the heists fueled by his mythology--not the other way around. On top of that, Now You See Me's drilled-to-death mantra works out the process of elimination for us, meaning that even the lowest of the lowest-common-denominator viewer will see a gleaming red arrow pointing at the real culprit's face, long before the "big reveal".

The last and greatest problem here is the inconsistency and unlikability of the main characters. The trailers would have you believe that Now You See Me is about some kind of illusionist X-Men team, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But "The Four Horsemen", as they're called, are just criminals (and one former criminal's assistant) whose main goal is to join a secret society that allegedly guards the secrets of "real" magic. We meet three of the four as they engage in swindles and theivery, and the filmmakers' idea of a "save the cat" moment is having Harrelson use his dubious psychic powers to coerce a guy into confessing that he cheating on his hypnotized wife--before demanding all the money in his wallet.

The eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, the Ocean's series--which was also about crooks. The key difference is that cast's ability to blend their natural charisma with sharp writing. Each of the Four Horsemen is scummy or weaselly in some way, with Eisenberg in particular cranking his asshole-prodigy thing from The Social Network to eleven. In order to create a compelling hero or anti-hero, there has to be some kernel of goodness for the audience to latch onto. Absent that, the main character(s) must be at least aspirational figures--even dark ones. I didn't want to be Eisenberg's J. Daniel Atlas; I wanted to stomp him into goo, along with the rest of his smug roach buddies.

For their part, the writers think that transferring money from a billionaire insurance company owner into the accounts of Hurricane Katrina victims as a magic-act closer counts for something. It might have, had their story structure not been so sloppy. Up until the moment the theft happens, we're given no indication that said billionaire was a bad guy (cheeky, sure, but not a swindler).

The only plus regarding the main characters is that they're not in the movie that much. After a "get the team together" setup, the film switches gears to focus at least seventy percent of its attention on the detectives following them. We check back later with our leads for good measure, and are treated to dialogue that sounds like the really cool capper to a story we weren't allowed to see.

Now You See Me is a disappointing, distractingly edited mess of a film that, in an alternate universe, was likely one of the most fun and original movies of the summer. If anyone can hook me up with a two-hour, trans-dimensional teleportation spell, please drop me a line.

Note to Cinephiles: I watched Now You See Me On-Demand and, because it was a dollar cheaper to rent the non-HD version of the film, the fine folks hosting me opted to go the standard-def route. If you find yourself in this situation, always offer the person with the remote a buck or two extra for the HD upgrade--lest you end up watching a cropped, claustrophobic version of a movie that needs all the help it can get in the Enjoyment Department (yes, this oddly applies to widescreen TVs, too).