By Chaz Lipp
Some movies are built like mousetraps, focused on con artists’ schemes so complex they simply don’t make any sense when you try to dissect them. Often these movies sacrifice character development and common sense in order to preserve their overwrought plot twists. Now You See Me is exactly like that, a movie that squanders a knockout ensemble cast in favor of increasingly far-fetched nonsense. Things get off to a zippy, delirious start as a quartet of illusionists (each with a distinctly different approach) is summoned by an unseen person or group of people. Together they concoct a series of phenomenal magic acts, routines that involve actually ripping people off while they simultaneously wow audiences.
Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) hooks us with a fast-paced and fun opening that introduces us to the performance troupe soon to be billed as The Four Horsemen: brainiac J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), master escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), mentalist Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), and small-time grifter/magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Flash-forward one year, the group is onstage in Vegas, magically transporting a volunteer from the audience to his bank in France. Soon the Vegas arena is filled with three million flying Euros, the astonished crowd grasping at the paper currency as the Horsemen “teleport” the volunteer back from France. It’s one of several impressive set pieces throughout Now You See Me and for a while it’s tremendously fun to find out how these feats were accomplished.
Given the international nature of the initial bank robbery, American cop Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is teamed with French cop Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent). Together they track down the Horsemen’s financier, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and the filmmaker threatening to expose their secrets, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). In other words, there’s a lot of a characters played by a host of famous actors and hardly a dull moment, at least for the first half. As the red herrings pile up and the illusions become increasingly implausible, the whole house of cards begins to topple. This is one of those plots that depends on a series of coincidences so unlikely, audiences stop caring what happens to whom. After all, the characters are actually just props – another way to keep the sleight of hand going.
The cast has fun with their roles, but eventually it becomes clear that there are no standouts. The screenplay simply doesn’t allow for anyone to become interesting or sympathetic. The Horsemen, smug and self-confident, practically come off like four uncaring sociopaths as they perpetrate their criminal routines. The revelation that there’s a shady, nearly mythical organization called “The Eye” pulling all the strings is one of many hard-to-swallow plot elements. As the helium drains during a long, exposition-heavy final act, Now You See Me reveals itself to be nowhere near as clever as its magician characters. The tagline is, unfortunately, 100 percent accurate: “The closer you look, the less you’ll see” It’s a movie about misdirection that is as empty and vapid as the illusions staged by its cast.