The Magic of Movies

Now You See Me
(USA, 115 min.)
Dir. Louis Letterier, Writ. Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Rincourt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Mélanie Laurent, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.
Dave Franco, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson in Now You See Me
Courtesy of eOne Films
Abracadabra! There’s something magical about going to the movies. Whether it’s the sheer entertainment value of the cinema or the thrill of diversion, the smoke and mirrors of moviemaking is great entertainment. I’ve never been one for literal magic—I’ll take the conjuring act of Meryl Streep any day—so it’s a pleasant surprise that Now You See Me pulls a rabbit out of its hat and brings the two art forms together to offer entertainment with a top hat.

The magicians in Now You See Me perform one dazzling act after another that will have viewers believing in magic from the very first scene. The film begins with an introduction to each of the magicians who will later assemble and perform as The Four Horsemen. Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) gets the first number, which seems like a standard trick of the “pick a card, any card” variety. The ruse of the trick is that the girl choosing the card is actually the first bit of misdirection in Now You See Me, for the person picking the card is, in fact, you. Following the film, both my moving-going companion and I both stated that we “selected” the same card in the deck before the girl chose it and it became the object of a neat trick. How Now You See Me performs this feat is a clincher: is it magic or Hollywood gimmicks?

The Four Horsemen—Atlas, Merrit (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher), and Jack (Dave Franco)—then perform an even greater trick once they’ve assembled and devised a crafty routine. The grand finale of their big show sees them rob a bank in Paris without ever leaving their Las Vegas stage. It’s a clever ruse that wins over the audience to the tune of 3.2 million Euros.

The magic act looks especially strange for those who weren’t there to see it. The investigation, picked up by FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), requires an odd angle of approach to see clearly. Money was stolen, but the alleged thieves never left the room. Was it a crime, a hoax, or real magic?

The odd couple of Agent Rhodes and Agent Dray must therefore follow the Four Horsemen to their next show and see what trick they perform under the watchful eye of their wealthy financier (Michael Caine). With the help of a professional debunker of onstage sorcery (Morgan Freeman), the agents must carefully observe the Horsemen like enrapt audience members looking to spot a charlatan by seeing how he’s pulling the strings. The magic of The Horsemen's act might have been doubly impressive had director Louis Letterier let them unfurl in unbroken long takes—we're reminded of Hollywood magic each time there's a cut—but few of the elaborate stagings rely on CGI effects. (If they do they're mostly invisible.) Instead, we're placed between the performers and the audience, straddling the stage while watching the performance and eavesdropping on the onlookers wondering how it's all being done.

Now You See Me is a surprising caper. It’s a heist movie structured akin to an elaborate magic act, which is full of misdirection and holds plenty of cards up its sleeve. Charismatic performances, fancy set pieces, and convoluted mental machinery build Now You See Me to a grand finale: Now You See Me has a doozy of a twist that you’ll never see coming.

The film moves at a rapid pace so that one can never really stop to second-guess what’s playing out on screen. Watching Now You See Me on the big screen, much like watching an onstage performer saw his sexy aid in half, requires a willing suspension of disbelief and a desire to see magic play itself out with success. (The trick wouldn’t be as entertaining if the magician’s aid died onstage, right?) Going along with the outrageous and highly improbable tricks of The Four Horsemen is the great thrill of Now You See Me—and it’s often more believable than the clumsy investigation into their conjuring ways.

Movies and magic hold much in common, though, beyond escapism, excitement, and visual pizzazz. They are both amply more rewarding when they withhold the process of their enchantment. Wondering how they pulled it off is half the fun. Watching a movie is rarely the same after one takes in the behind-the-scenes footage and sees how the filmmakers made it all work. It’s hard to look at the same film again without seeing the machinery instead of the art. Similarly, Now You See Me overplays its hand by revealing too much to the audience. Every trick of The Horsemen’s charade is explained in great detail. A magic act is an astounding feat in one scene and then a chunk of Christopher Nolan-y blunt dialogue in the next. Instead of being left to simmer in the wonder of the magic, we’re left with something disposable that makes less sense once it’s explained.

Nevertheless, it’s fun watching The Horsemen execute increasingly impressive tricks for the two hours in which they invite us to join their caper. Offering something between a film and a live performance, Now You See Me is escapism at its best. That’s the real magic of movies, isn’t it?

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Now You See Me opens in wide release May 31st.