My great-uncle had one of the coolest hyphenations I’ve ever come across: a sessions court judge-stage magician. He performed with Bob Hope during World War II, and was known simply as “the Judge” by magicians across the state when I was a kid. He was born in 1915, so by the time I came along, age had considerably narrowed his sleight-of-hand repertoire, but I didn’t care. With his horn-rimmed glasses, three-piece suit, and genuinely funny banter, I thought he was infinitely cooler than David Copperfield. I knew they were just tricks, but it was the panache that mattered.
There’s no doubt that Now You See Me is supposed to leave us thinking about the many parallels between movies and stage magic. We go into both with a willingness to be tricked—we know it’s all an illusion, but we’re partners in the artifice. The suspension of disbelief, as Louis Leterrier’s illusionist heist flick constantly tries to remind us, is fun, especially on the increasingly rare occasions when you walk out wondering how they pulled it all off. Instead, it got my mind chugging in an altogether different (but no less intriguing) direction: When does it go from an illusion to a con? Is there a clear line of demarcation, or is it all just a matter of perspective? Wherever that line might be, Now You See Me definitely crosses it.
The strange thing is, I didn’t particularly mind. It’s up to each viewer to decide whether they’ve been entertained or conned, and I’m going with the former.
Things get off to a great start. (The first four minutes are online, so you can see for yourself. It’s good stuff.) An energetic prologue introduces us to four illusionists, each representing a different school of stage magic: close-up whiz J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and spoon-bender/conman Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Thanks to some nifty cinematic sleight-of-hand, the viewer becomes the mark in Atlas’ grandiose card trick, and he speaks directly to the camera as he lays out magic’s—and, ostensibly, the movie’s—first rule: the closer you look, the less you see.
And man, is he ever right. The first scenes promise great things. The magicians are brought together when they each receive a tarot card with a cryptic message, and presto, it’s one year later and they’re performing together as the Four Horsemen, a celebrity magic team that’s packing the MGM Grand. With their wealthy benefactor, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and notorious myth debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) in the audience, the group proceeds to apparently rob a Paris bank from the Vegas stage.
You’ll figure out how they did it long before put-upon FBI man Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) does. He hauls the four in for questioning, but, in the movie’s best reversal, he gives up far more information than he gets. He turns them loose but makes it his mission to stop their next flashy crime, which is supposedly going down at a show in New Orleans.
So far, so good, but then things start to sputter. For starters, the movie’s most interesting characters—the four shysters who got such a terrific intro—all but disappear for considerable stretches of screen time. Suddenly it’s a caper yarn without the caper, told from the skeptical detective’s point of view. The plot twists come in rapid succession, each more outrageous than the last, yet all utterly predictable (including the big reveal at the end). Every twist crumbles if you think about it too much (or, you know, at all), leaving gaping plot holes in their wake. In the event that you ever lose track of what’s going on or who’s got the upper hand, don’t worry. Morgan Freeman will explain it to you. In detail. Every. Frickin’. Time.
And yet, in spite of all this, Now You See Me never really stops being fun. The film’s logic might do a vanishing act but, thanks to the cast, its charm doesn’t. It’s hard not to have fun when everyone onscreen so clearly is. There are a few great set pieces, including a terrific hand-to-sleight-of-hand combat scene that practically begs to be watched in slow motion. The plot moves as quickly as Leterrier’s constantly swooshing Steadicam and Brian Tyler’s bombastic score, so there’s never really time to get bored, even as you’re wondering what the really interesting people are doing while the cops are trying to find them.
Now You See Me doesn’t deliver on the promises of its premise or its opening scenes, but there’s some breezy fun to be had, even once you realize you’re being swindled. Just remember Atlas’ opening admonishment: The closer you look, the less you’ll see.