Story of ‘Now You See Me’ a Bit Misdirected

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No votes yet Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Boasting a big star ensemble cast, and themes of magical realism and misdirection, “Now You See Me” is an overdone, too-clever-for-its-own-good fantasy with some entertaining tricks. Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher join veterans Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman in the magic mix.

Since the main action centers on big time magicians – think David Copperfield – there are many opportunities to show off the sleight of hand. What could be definitively magical becomes redundant and tedious, as one trick becomes another becomes another. The film wants to be forgiven for this because the reason It’s doing all this tricky misdirection is all about being noble and avenging, but the reaction is opposite – as in fool me once, shame on me, keep fooling around, shame on a sloppy story. Although the individual tricks have some entertainment to them, it is not enough to sustain the glut of “ta-dah” moments that are sweated out in the end, which keeps piling on more endings until it can’t anymore, with a voice over narration that is basically saying “we can do whatever we want, we’re magicians.”

Four performing magicians – showy Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), gutsy Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), streetwise Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) – are called together to a mysterious New York City address, where they experience a baptism of sorts. This results in a team up to become “The Four Horseman,” a quartet act of prestidigitation that is part arrogance and part large scale magic tricks, and are financed by a millionaire named Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco
The Four: Dave Franco, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson in ‘Now You See Me’
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

There first big trick involves robbing a Paris bank. This gets an FBI agent named Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and French Interpol officer Alma (Mélanie Laurent) involved in the arrest of the magicians, aided by a TV host named Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman), whose specialty is exposing magician secrets. This begins a cat-and-mouse game, as the quartet is released to complete its magical trick cycle. Who stays ahead of who, and why they are doing what they do is intertwined with the magician’s finest prop – the art of misdirection.

Yes, the art of misdirection, piled on until it loses its power to misdirect. This is a partly a caper film, and the presence of Michael Caine is a reminder of better caper films, the types that don’t keep telling us how clever they are. This film likes to brag, revealing secrets as to say “you didn’t see that one coming, eh?” It gets to the point where the answer is, “yeah, you’re right, but that’s pretty lame.” It’s one thing to reveal shocking confessions, it’s another to do it so many times that there is nothing shocking about them.

The magic is cool, for awhile. The one thing about real magic is that it is a craft, often unaided by the use of Hollywood special effects. It’s easy to be “magical” when digital editing can take care of the trick’s most amazing moments. Magic is mysterious, and at one point Jesse Eisenberg’s character proclaims that the first rule of magic is “always be the smartest guy in the room.” In this film, it’s about that and always having a decent keyboard manipulator in post production. It is clever, but eventually too clever.

The performances are odd. The “Four Horsemen” are supposedly the best in the world, but that “best” includes tremendous arrogance, which is mostly off-putting. Woody Harrelson especially has a burr in his saddle with his mentalist character Merritt. He has the power of Merlin, but continually uses it to embarrass people. Would it be better used to read the mind of dictators or Congress to achieve world peace? Jesse Eisenberg, with his signature fast-talk style, gets very close to the irritation red zone. Like in the Wizard of Oz, there is a wish for someone to pull open the curtain.

Morgan Freeman
Playing with Fire: Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman) in ‘Now You See Me’
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

And that is suppose to be Morgan Freeman, here taking a supporting role that anyone could do, except when he does the opening to his character’s TV show (he has those great narrative pipes). His motive for exposing magician secrets are arrogantly random, given in rapid and multiple explanations. This exposes his character as a scapegoat to the Four Horseman, as does many of the other story elements.

It’s all about the magic, or lack therein, that drives the narrative to the end. The final trick of the four sums it all up – it’s spectacular, overwrought and ultimately reveals there is nothing up their sleeve.

“Now You See Me” opens everywhere on May 31st. Featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Mélanie Laurent. Screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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