Film Review: Now You See Me

Plenty of cinematic subterfuge is needed to keep this high-speed heist act in the air, but it’s a fun ride if you don’t look where you have been or where you are headed.

In Now You See Me—a slick sleight-of-hand caper flick, cast to impress but too clever by half—the best magic trick pulled off turns out to be its first one, but you don’t realize that until 110 minutes later. Jesse Eisenberg achieves it with a deck of cards and an office building. How he does it, I’ll never know, but it’s a terrific jump-starter.

The message conveyed in this illusion is: If you think you’re watching closely, you’re missing the whole thing. And that’s pretty much the rule of engagement for this fast, flashy, hip thriller about a quartet of illusionists who pull bank jobs in public (like, as part of their Vegas nightclub act). I fear we may have lost you with that parenthetical aside, but director Louis Leterrier keeps the action coming so furiously that you really have no choice but to swallow it whole or be left behind.

The script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt (from an original story by Yakin and Ricourt), makes big leaps from logic—often ignoring plausibility entirely—but maintains a pile-driving, lickety-split pace so you don’t have to think about it.

A committed, somewhat starry cast also helps make this flamboyant fiction go down rather smoothly. The top-billed Eisenberg is the fast-talking (very!) card-shark found on street corners conning the gullible; Dave Franco (James’ bro, quite obviously) also works the streets as a con artist—and pickpocket or lock-picker, when needed; Isla Fisher is an escape artist with her own nightclub water tank; and, nodding to seniors, Woody Harrelson is a mentalist who blackmails via mind games.

All four are allowed a sequence to show their wares (or is it be-wares?) before they are gathered together by a mysterious millionaire (Michael Caine) who bills them, unmindful of gender, as “The Four Horsemen” and turns them loose on Vegas.

One can only hope that Morgan Freeman put in for combat pay for the credibility he brings to the proceedings. He shows up/presents himself as a reality-show host who specializes in debunking magic acts, and despite the loop-de-loops his character is put through, he brings the ring of truth to every line. The grateful scripters toss him and Caine a fleeting scene that, in the playing, is worth their weight in Oscar gold.

Lastly (which is how he usually finishes up, eating the dust of the disappearing magicians) is Mark Ruffalo as the FBI agent in pursuit, chronically unshaven and giving off Columbo vibes. The perpetual thorn in his side is the female Interpol agent assigned to assist him whether he likes it or not. Mélanie Laurent makes a glamorous case for the character without pushing it. Yes, romance is in the air.

The technical credits are all consistently top-notch, in keeping with a $70 million picture. Tag-team matches (Larry Fong and Mitchell Amundsen on photography, Robert Leighton and Vincent Tabaillon on editing) create some dizzily exciting action scenes—and Peter Wenham’s production design is perhaps at its best showing off the absurdity of an over-the-top Vegas act, lathering on the excesses.

The feats of magic performed in this film are beyond spectacular, but because they’re largely the work of computer-generated technology, they pack no kick. Magic only works and wows live inside a theatre.

What magic resources were at hand should have been applied to the plot, which is arbitrary and aimless enough to have been made up on the spot. Despite their supposed histories, characters are constantly switching sides without rhyme or reason. It happens so much in the final stretch, snickers of derision could be heard.

Now You See Me, at any given point in the story, is a partial view on the brink of changing. Just surrender to the whims of the writers, and don’t look for logic.