' ' Cinema Romantico: Now You See Me

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Now You See Me

A Conan O’Brien cameo appears midway through “Now You See Me”, the magic-centric caper film from director Louis Letterier out in theaters, in which he makes a crack about magicians and their general inability to get “laid”. Ouch. Is that the public’s opinions of latter day trick-performers? Consider one of the more (in)famous pop culture magicians of recent times – G.O.B. (Will Arnett) of the cult sitcom “Arrested Development” who is portrayed as vain, selfish, and, ultimately and most importantly, inept. When thinking of magicians, I, for one, think of G.O.B. attempting to throw flames from his sleeves and throwing lighter fluid instead. I can only imagine magicians worldwide being vexed by such clownish characterizations.

Rest assured, “Now You See Me” has a great deal going on, so much going on that the relentlessly twisty plot assumes command and the barely drawn characters are reduced to the essence of the actors playing them – which, actually, is sort of a good thing. Yet, I can’t help but feel the film is meant foremost as a defense of the magician, an attempt to restore its tarnished reputation in the image of Houdini by way of Danny Ocean.

The movie’s open is creaky, employing the old reliable Gathering The Troops sequence in which we see from what cloth our quartet of magic-makers are cut. The leader, so to speak, is J. Daniel Atlas, played by an uppity Jesse Eisenberg which feels just right because, seriously, can't you see Mark Zuckerberg having been a douchey magician if Facebook didn't pan out? Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is an alluring escape artist who once dated Atlas because, you know, there’s GOTTA be romantic tension in the ranks. Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist/con artist in a jaunty hat. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is hustling people on Staten Island Ferries. They are united by a mysterious benefactor and in a massive magic show sequence with the camera swooping and swirling to such extremes it would make even Michael Bay nauseous, they bring an audience member onstage and proceed to have him rob his bank…..in France.

As you might expect, this stokes the interest of the FBI and agent Dylan Rhodes, played by Mark Ruffalo in a delightful performance that is one part less pratfall-prone Inspector Closeau (seriously, he is foiled at every turn) and one part Guy At Magic Show With Arms Crossed Muttering “This Is Stupid”. He is reluctantly teamed with Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent – who, and I’m just being honest here, has the most fetching mole in cinematic history) on account of the “heist” being international. She is skeptical and on-point, but also dreamy and wide-eyed, and I confess to drifting off several times throughout “Now You See Me” to thoughts of a different film – a film where Dylan is re-assigned to Paris and he and Alma are tasked to investigate art thefts at the Louvre merely as an excuse for him to be an idiot American discovering his inner-romantic as they sip espresso and playfully banter along the banks of the Seine. Sigh…………

Wait, I drifted off again! Apologies! Back to “Now You See Me”!

There is one more character to discuss and he is the most important – Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). He is a magician debunker, wily in dashing gold hoop earrings, who makes and sells videos explaining, step-by-step, how magicians pull off the impossible. Naturally, this makes him crucial to the investigation. He is the movie’s most important character not because he is there to helpfully explain everything the audience may have missed, but because he symbolizes the movie’s primary target. Sure, there is the notion of a band of Robin Hood-esque illusionists, magically taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but that theme remains on the fringes and goes generally unexplored. No, the movie kind of hands off the reins from the magicians to the dubious investigators and magician debunker about a quarter of the way in because what it’s really going after is...

I remember when my high school – for reasons I still don’t really know – had a magician perform for us in assembly. Afterwards in my study hall two teachers discussed which particular tricks they had figured out. No one cares about the trick itself, everyone cares about HOW you did the trick. No one wants to sit back and enjoy the show, they want to poke holes in how the show was put together. No one wants to be awed, everyone wants to sit in back with their arms crossed muttering “this is stupid.” “Now You See Me” demands to be taken not so much seriously as with a serious irreverence. Let yourself go and believe in the illusion. It’s difficult to go deeper without betraying the mechanics of the tricks and twists, and so we won’t.

Of course, that’s also what makes “Now You See Me” such a classic befuddlement. It’s skin-deep, sure, and includes a car chase simply because I suspect the studio heads read the script, pounded on the conference table and shouted, “This movie is opening in May! It HAS to have a car chase!” But it plays so loose and carefree and the actors genuinely appear to be having fun, which counts for a lot. I really kind of liked it……in the moment. Because as much as I enjoyed it, I'm not sure I ever want to watch it again. It goes to such great lengths to tell us to just enjoy the show and not worry about how “they did it”, except then it lays out for us in detail (with obligatory quick flashbacks) exactly how “they did it.”

Give away the secret and the magic is gone. Which is the movie's whole argument. So maybe……it’s genius?


Candice Frederick said...

wow. this sounds all over the place....and kind of weird. :(

Nick Prigge said...

It is all over the place. And it moves REALLY fast, partly because there's so much going on and partly, I imagine, to kind of cover up what I imagine must be holes in the story.

Still, I think it works, in its own strange way.

Derek Armstrong said...

Not as convinced that it works. I think the problem with magic at the movies (The Prestige notwithstanding) is that it takes seeing magic live to really be impressed with it. Because of edits and special effects, nothing that happens in a movie is really "magic" any more than the fact that it's magic that they can make Orcs and other Middle Earth creatures appear, when such things do not exist in real life. So in a way I think they HAVE to explain it for us to find it clever, whereas the same burden does not exist with real-world magic.

Therefore, when there's some trick where Isla Fisher is floating around in a bubble, and then falls into Jesse Eisenberg's arms, but they never explain how they did that trick, it's just annoying.