Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt; story by Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt. Produced by Bobby Cohen, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci. Music by Bryan Tyler. Photographed by Mitchell Amundsen, Larry Fong. Edited by Robert Leighton, Vincent Tabaillon. Production designed by Peter Wenham. Costumes designed by Jenny Eagan. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.
“Who doesn’t love a good magic trick?” asks one character about halfway through Now You See Me, a magician heist caper. This character is correct—a good magic trick, one that relies on artful misdirection and a delicious payoff, are part of what going to the movies is all about. But Now You See Me, which has an all-star cast and impressive technical credits, is not a good magic trick. A solid magic act should make us wonder “How did they do that?” With Now You See Me, we know exactly how they did it: with CGI, dumb twists, and some massive cheats.
That’s too bad, because the setup has promise: a street hustler (Jesse Eisenberg), a stage magician (Isla Fisher), a mentalist (Woody Harrelson) and a pickpocket (Dave Franco) are summoned by a mysterious figure in New York City, where they are given (presumably) a directive and endless resources. Before long they’ve become The Avengers of Vegas (dubbed “The Four Horsemen”), delighting audiences with their act that seems to contain real magic. When one show concludes with what appears to be teleportation to a Paris bank—so that it can be robbed and the funds resdistributed to the crowd—FBI agent Mark Ruffalo enters the fray.
From here, the movie focuses primarily on Ruffalo’s attempts to catch the Horsemen, who he believes are using all-too-mundane deceptions for their Robin Hood act. He’s saddled with a female agent from Interpol (Mélanie Laurent), and tries vainly to poke holes in the Horsemen’s performance, consulting an expert debunker of magic tricks (Morgan Freeman). Michael Caine also has a role as the Horsemen’s financier, who doesn’t take too kindly to one particular part of the show.
Thus, we get an extended (some would say “protracted”) cat and mouse game between agents and entertainers, as Ruffalo uses all the tricks of his own trade to collapse what he believes is a house of cards. The Horsemen are typically one step ahead, except for scenes where they are behind in such obvious, telegraphed ways that clearly the movie has something—as they say—up its sleeve. Many of the surprises in this movie will be routine to anyone who’s seen a movie before about cons and grifters.
But the movie tries to have it both ways regardless. The movie—in a manner so sloppy it must be accident—never truly lands on an idea of what the Horsemen are. Phonies? Well-intention bomb-throwers? True wizards? A delight of many movies like this is when one character walks another through “how they did it,” and while Morgan Freeman does get that scene here, the movie’s annoyingly selective about what it explains. The impression is that many of the Horsemen’s tricks can be recontextualized in earthbound terms, but that happens inconsistently, and the idea that they’re really doing these things doesn’t hold much water either. Enhanced by overwrought CGI, the illusions never operate with any system of logic (no matter how fanciful), and the film keeps rewriting its own rules from scene to scene, with no thought behind how it all pieces together.
Not content to create a movie that doesn’t make any sense, however, the filmmakers took the extra step and shoehorned in a ridiculous final twist that makes even less sense. It’s intended to be all in the name of good fun, but it’s actually pretty insulting, effectively undermining a big investment that the audience made early on, and exposing earlier scenes not to contain hidden dimension, but outright falsehoods. Caper films have misdirection and misleading clues all the time, but the cardinal rule is that you don’t fib.
I like dumb fun at the movies, and for a while—truth be told—Now You See Me is indeed fun—the cast is game, the tricks are initially intriguing, the sets and locations are shot with slick efficiency by director Louis Leterrier. But the movie gets dumber as it goes along while pretending to be smart, calling attention to its own deficiencies, and eventually the whole thing falls apart. A good magic trick is a con after all, amounting to little more than smoke and mirrors. Now You See Me is simply all smoke.