There are certain things that movies do well, and certain things that movies do very, very badly, and capturing the excitement and allure of proper stage magic is certainly in the second category. Audiences know that a good sleight of hand artist is actually doing something amazing, and hiding their secrets behind a thin, glittery veil of showmanship. In contrast, audiences know that movies are “only” showmanship, and that no matter how talented a magician may look on film, the performer probably didn’t develop any of those amazing abilities on their own, and that they are merely relying on talented editors and off-camera visual effects artists to make them look like they’re Houdini.
So it doesn’t matter if a playing card disappears, it only matters if it disappears right in front of your nose, and that you had no idea how it was done. So when you put that same trick in a movie, and everyone knows how it’s done – i.e. the “magic” of editing – nobody gives a damn. And personally, I think that whole phenomenon is a crock of shit. We know that Robert Downey Jr. didn’t build an Iron Man suit. We know that Vin Diesel can’t drive a car through the nose of an exploding cargo plane. So we also understand that Jesse Eisenberg can’t throw handcuffs across a room and get them to land perfectly on Mark Ruffalo’s wrists and then lock themselves. It doesn’t matter if these things are real, it only matters that a movie is entertaining enough that we want to believe, even if only for two short hours, that they could be real.
And that’s the kind of movie you’ll find in Now You See Me, a new heist thriller from Louis Leterrier about a group of stage magicians who become incredibly elaborate criminals. Their schemes are complicated and absurd enough to elicit excited titters, and also, for the most part, just plausible enough for audiences to enjoy without feeling much in the way of shame. None of these actors are real magicians, but Leterrier films all the magic in a fun way that doesn't call too much attention to the actors' inabilities. Besides, they're all playing really fun characters. Now You See Me is a big, crazy thrill ride with a lot of imaginative ideas, and occasionally an unpredictable twist or two. Occasionally.
Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco each play magicians with different skill sets at different points in their careers. Eisenberg is a cocky David Copperfield type of showman, Isla Fisher is a flashy former magician’s assistant, Woody Harrelson is an over-the-hill mentalist and Dave Franco is a talented nobody who uses his skills for petty theft. A mysterious figure brings them all together and shows them a mysterious hologram before the film cuts to a whole year later, when the illusionists are suddenly headlining in Vegas under the name “The Four Horsemen.”
Their first gig involves a brand new trick that seems to teleport a wealthy patsy across the planet and into the middle of a French bank, where he helps the Four Horsemen steal millions of Euros. The FBI gets involved in the form of Mark Ruffalo, but he and Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) can’t outthink these world class illusionists themselves, so they enlist the aide of a magical spoilsport played by Morgan Freeman, who stands to earn himself a fortune by exposing how The Four Horsemen’s pull off increasingly elaborate and ridiculous tricks and crimes.
Now You See Me invites you to look closely and figure out how its many cons are pulled, so there’s a very real danger that you’ll actually take the movie up on this offer and wind up two steps ahead of it. I did, but to the film’s credit I was still able have a good time because Now You See Me is full of creative set pieces, including a spectacular martial arts fight sequence using flash paper, playing cards and various other sleights of hand. Most of the memorable moments in Now You See Me are obvious works of prestidigitization, but they’re all in the spirit of good fun and hardly worthy of picking apart as implausible acts of showmanship. Isla Fisher is floating in a giant bubble because it would be cool if Isla Fisher could float in a giant bubble. That’s as far as anyone needs to think this movie out.
There’s also a secret plot running through the background of Now You See Me that may involve murder, revenge, secret societies and/or, believe it or not, “real” magic, which gives the story a slightly larger scale but doesn’t actually contribute anything other than a constant tease. It’s an awkward set-up, and should by all rights either be the whole damned point of the movie or just a flamboyant red herring. Frustratingly it’s purpose lies somewhere in between those two extremes, raising many questions and neglecting to answer any of the big ones. At best it promises a sequel that could potentially fly completely off the rails and into absolute nonsense of the highest order. Now You See Me has the potential to become a magical Fast & Furious franchise, and with that said, it could quite easily get better with every outlandish and overblown installment.
The makers of Now You See Me keep the thrills barreling along, seemingly aware that the audience shouldn’t be left alone with their thoughts long enough to ponder the movie's bigger mysteries, because the whole thing could easily fall apart. Like most good magic tricks, Now You See Me relies on amusing distractions in order to make a straightforward technical exercise feel like it’s worth the price of admission, and while there may not be much prestige in that, there are certainly worse ways to make your money disappear.