Now You See Me is only the second worst movie about magic released this year – it is hard to imagine the film about magic that could be worse than The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. This is one of only a few slight praises Now You See Me will get out of this review though. Bottom line up front – so much potential wasted.
What sinks Now You See Me is the script. The most interesting characters, the magicians, are kept mostly off screen in favor of bumbling FBI detectives. Two of the three screenwriters are Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin. Allow me to present a bit of their writing filmography here: Solomon wrote Imagine That (2009), The In-Laws (2003), and Super Mario Bros. (1993) while Yakin wrote something called From Dusk Till Dawn: Texas Blood Money (1999) and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004).
With a history of terrible films behind them, Now You See Me was almost doomed from the start. Even a cast including Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, and Jesse Eisenberg are unable to salvage it. We start with four magicians in a montage of their respective acts. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) is a top-notch cardsharp, Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is a mentalist and expert hypnotist who uses targeted guessing and your facial expressions to reveal your secrets, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) uses large props and misdirection as an escape artist, and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a petty con man who can steal your wallet as easy as best you in a quick hand-to-hand fighting scenario.
These magicians are interesting. You want to watch them perform tricks and dazzle audiences. However, we rarely get that chance. What we get is Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) who does his best imitation of a tired, no-nonsense FBI detective annoyed that he is assigned to investigate tricksters. Along for the ride out of nowhere is good-looking Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). The subtle, tense romance brewing between Rhodes and Dray is ridiculous. They go through the motions of getting in each other’s way, not listening to each other, and all of a sudden they find each other desperately attractive. What would you expect from the writer of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights?
Off to the side with limited screen time are the veterans. Arthur Tressler (Caine) bankrolls the magicians and Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) is a professional magic de-bunker with a TV show exposing magicians as frauds. The magicians, known as the Four Horsemen, stage a series of shows where the punchline is always a whole bunch of someone else’s money being thrown into the audience – the rich and corrupt giving back to the masses they stole from in the first place.
We watch the magic unfold with nary a clue how it is achieved and like the old, reliable plot device he is, Thaddeus Bradley rolls in to explain to the FBI, and us, how they pulled the wool over our eyes. Playing sneaky magicians, Eisenberg and Harrelson are very good. Fisher is just along for the ride as the girl in the mix and Franco does not get enough screen time to warrant much mention.
Now You See Me would have been immensely stronger if Eisenberg and Harrelson had a chance to be on screen for more than a minute or two at a time. Ruffalo’s detective and his squad of scrambling agents yelling into walkie-talkies every 30 seconds is the absolute worst protagonist to follow around in a ‘how did they do that’ story. Their foot chase through Mardi Gras with a shaky cam of all things is best forgotten by all involved.
The elements are here for a quality summer blockbuster, a break from the superheroes to focus on an interesting story. The characters are even here – I would not mind seeing a sequel with just the magicians sans all of the other distractions. Unfortunately, we get another forgettable Hollywood cliché full of plot holes, unnecessary characters and sub-plots, and another lesson in expectation management.
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Michael Kelly, Common