The greatest thing about magicians is their ability to amaze us by performing seemingly impossible parlor tricks. The greatest thing about “Now You See Me” is that it ends. The new film (released May 31) was directed by Louis Leterrier, a man known for cranking out disappointing blockbuster adaptations of beloved stories and characters that didn’t really need a return to the silver screen. The Frenchman was behind 2008’s tepid Edward Norton tent pole “The Incredible Hulk” and the almost unwatchable and, in my opinion, disgraceful 2010 reboot of “Clash of The Titans.” His newest attempt at filmmaking follows four modern-day magicians who come together as a group of criminal masterminds.
The movie tries to blend fantasy, crime, heist, drama and caper genres, but therein lies the problem. Although the effects are impressive, there is zero character development with a lackluster twist in a sea of likable yet squandered A-list actors who flop around like dying fish in this abomination of a movie with a script so lazy that it forgets to do what magic shows do best: keep our attention.
The film’s beginning starts off promising as it introduces its four main characters, each one specializing in a different type of magic. Jesse Eisenberg (“Zombieland,” “The Social Network”), aka Michael Cera 2.0, breaks the shackles of awkward typecasting to play Daniel Atlas, a David Blaine-like street performer who is able to pick up attractive women through his impressive, large-scale magic tricks. Woody Harrelson (who worked with Eisenberg on 2009’s “Zombieland”) is one of the movie’s few real attractions as Merritt McKinney, a hilarious wisecracking mentalist who can hypnotize just about anyone. The lovely and British Isla Fisher portrays Henley Reeves, a Houdini-esque escape artist, who, in a tense opening sequence, evades death at the jaws of flesh-hungry piranhas. The last member of the group is Jack Wilder, a small-time con artist played by James Franco’s younger brother Dave Franco (“21 Jump Street”).
If you’re looking for something more, then I’m afraid to say that you won’t find it here. The film tries to make these figures more interesting by adding lame backstories, but in reality, these characters are so one-dimensional that they belong in a “Paper Mario” game. None of them are really likable except for Harrelson, who only has a few shining moments.
These four individuals are brought together by a mysterious figure to become a magical group known as The Four Horsemen. From here, the movie devolves into a second-rate heist film that contains hints of Steven Soderbergh’s “Oceans” movies without any of the fun that made the George Clooney films a hit. Throughout the film, the Horsemen pull off amazing stunts like robbing a French bank all the way from Las Vegas and stealing heavily guarded safes. These moments have some fleeting excitement that doesn’t last long.
Their goal: to complete a list of tasks without question in order to join an age-old magical society known as “The Eye.” However, so little explanation is ever given on this plot point that it might as well be called “The MacGuffin Society.” All the while, they are pursued by the FBI and Interpol with relentless agents Dylan Rhodes and Alma Vargas right on their tails.
Mark Ruffalo (“The Avengers”) and Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) take on the roles of these operatives but fall prey to the same lack of development of their fellow co-stars. We feel nothing for them during the intimate moments that are so devoid of emotion that you can practically hear the sound of the cliches gushing from their characters. Nevertheless, the interaction between them and the magicians does yield some tolerable moments.
Even legendary actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are not safe from this poor excuse for a movie (the two worked together on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy). Caine plays Arthur Tressler, the rich sponsor of the Horsemen, who ends up getting screwed by his investment. Freeman plays Thaddeus Bradley, a former magician who now makes loads of cash exposing the tricks of others. Sadly, Bradley only shows up when it’s convenient for the plot to make the FBI look like idiots and explain how the criminals are pulling off their hijinks in “duh-it’s-so-obvious” moments. One need only look at Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” or Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” movies to see the same cop-out device exploited. Unfortunately, these two great talents are wasted in roles that don’t let them do much. Caine is just the archetypal, overconfident rich guy, while Freeman is nothing but a walking cheat sheet.
I will say this: The film has some style. Its Vegas and New York locales are visually pleasing with their bright, flashing lights. The action scenes are so-so, with chases in the streets of Manhattan and New Orleans. The effects are pretty good, especially when they complement the various acts of the Horsemen, which, although complex, still contain the cornerstones of any good magic show like white rabbits and balloon animals. They are always one step ahead of the clueless authorities, having fun all the while (looks like someone took inspiration from the Joker). By the end, you’ll be shocked by the movie’s twist, but more so by how well it was hidden the entire time. Trust me; you’ll be expecting one thing but end up with one giant slap in the face.
While not your typical children’s magic party, “Now You See Me” is a major disappointment that slips in its own attempt to be slick. With such a promising trailer, I was truly excited for this movie, but its stars deserve better than a film that is devoid of any real magic. You’ll sit there waiting to be amazed and for things to be properly explained and will instead be crestfallen when the moment never truly arrives. Like the illusions of Barney Stinson and Gob Bluth, it’s cheesy all around. Harry Houdini is rolling in his grave.