About halfway through my experience with Louis Leterrier’s fast-paced magician caper NOW YOU SEE ME, I had to stop and ask myself what the point was to everything that was taking place on-screen. To that point, I still knew nothing of the film’s leads other than broad strokes, had no semblance of motivation for their heists disguised as illusions, and had not one iota of a rooting interest in the movie whatsoever. Well, not much changed in NOW YOU SEE ME’s second half with the film coasting along entirely on style and presentation with any sort of substance pulling a convenient disappearing/reappearing act, much like that Seven of Hearts you plucked from the deck during a street magician’s act. And perhaps that’s the greatest trick Leterrier’s film is able to pull off – creating the illusion of a movie that is going somewhere, built upon the foundation of a strong cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Melanie Laurent), that just has to be good. However, under your watchful eye, able to spot the sleight of hand, the attached wires, the scarf hidden up the sleeve, you’ll quickly come to realize NOW YOU SEE ME is quick and slick but with not enough material to stick. This is one of those films that happens in front of your eyes at the theatre, and, by the time you’ve finished taking a leak afterwards, you’ve already forgotten everything about it. You can’t even remember if you even enjoyed watching it, because, for all intents and purposes, it’s one of the pictures that goes in one ear and right out the other. There’s nothing here to stew over or reflect upon. However, I made it a point to recall in the very moment that I was taking in NOW YOU SEE ME that I wasn’t finding much entertainment in what was transpiring on-screen. I found it quite dull actually and rather lifeless, outside of the occasional Woody Harrelson comedic interlude – the one bright spot of the film. Making NOW YOU SEE ME even more disappointing is the fact that the film already contains a ton of elements that, if put together correctly, could have made for an intriguing film. Unfortunately, that’s not the movie Leterrier pulled out of his hat, and what we get is this display of mediocrity.
NOW YOU SEE ME begins by tracking four capable magicians – J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) who has gained popularity as a talented street magician, Merritt Osbourne (Harrelson) whose specialty is mentalism and hypnosis, Henley Reeves (Fisher) who is a former magician’s assistant turned escape artist and Jack Wilder (Franco) who is equally as talented as an illusionist as he is as a pickpocket. Each of these four individuals is followed by a mysterious hooded figure who somehow leaves tarot cards for them undetected, bringing them together as a group in one location for a greater purpose. What their connection or purpose is remains a mystery and essentially an afterthought as we’re thrust into a Vegas stage show with this magical collective now selling out show on the Vegas Strip, branded as the Four Horsemen, most likely because they thought it would look cool on a t-shirt and not because it resembles their group in any way, shape or form. In fact, the Four Horsemen sounds more like a pro wrestling stable (because it was) than a magic show, but what do I know, right?
In any event, the big centerpiece for their show is that they’ll take someone from the audience, bring them on stage, teleport them anywhere in the world to their personal bank and then rob it for them, giving their score to the audience in attendance. However, when $3.2 million goes missing from an international bank, you can’t expect there not to be repercussions for your actions, and suddenly the Four Horsemen are in the crosshairs of an investigation involving both the F.B.I. and Interpol to get to the bottom of matters. Leading the charge is Ruffalo as Agent Dylan Rhodes, a remarkably one-note member of the law enforcement community build entirely on arrogance and incompetence equally to serve as the foil for the Horsemen. Usually I dig Ruffalo’s work, but here, playing a terrible cop that appears to always be two steps behind the magicians’ plans and unwilling to change his approach, he becomes tiresome to watch. After all, how many times can you watch the same character repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again before it becomes not only redundant but incredibly boring? There’s no fluctuation in the part whatsoever, and Ruffalo’s inherent charm is wasted on a character that feels as if it took a bath in cliche. If you’re going to go with the bumbling officer of the law as part of your story structure, you’d better make him either interesting as hell or incredibly funny… NOW YOU SEE ME chooses neither path, which causes another problem for the Horsemen, which is a lack of any real threat to their goals.
That’s the perfect time to transition into what their goals are, which, when revealed, are rather trivial and rather stupid. For them to go through all the trouble they go to, in order to achieve an idea that feels as if it was quickly thrown together on the way to the set the morning of that scene’s shoot, is incredibly underwhelming, especially when the film hasn’t given you anything at all in terms of what drives the Horsemen to do what they do. One would hope that saving such information for some type of big reveal would lend itself to a satisfying pay-off, but that isn’t the case here at all. The Horsemen’s motive is no more than a few throwaway sentences that still don’t explain all that much about their involvement in a grand plan being masterminded. Okay, so without a reason to care why they’re doing what they’re doing, you’d think NOW YOU SEE ME would go to great lengths then to at least deliver some entertaining character work. That’d make you absolutely incorrect in your thoughts though as there’s not much to grasp onto with any of these main players. Let me just knock Fisher and Franco out of the equation right away for you, as neither are given anything substantial to do, and only appear to round out the numbers, because the Four Horsemen sounds better than the Two Horsemen. Their contributions are maybe a smidgen more than zero, as at least Franco gets one scene to shine. However, attempting to give a character that’s been rendered meaningless leading up to such a moment something big to do so suddenly negates the importance of whatever he’s doing.
Eisenberg essentially serves as the leader of the Horsemen, but, in doing so, he essentially puts forth the same arrogant douche persona I’ve seen him adopt for every role he’s taken since being nominated for an Oscar for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. It’s this “I’m better than you” aura he projects non-step now with his characters, and an act I’ve seen him do better in other films, that it becomes grating at times to watch Eisenberg work here. It’s as if Eisenberg was cast to play a parody version of the Eisenberg persona we’ve come to expect, and with nothing drawing me to what he’s doing here in the film, he doesn’t offer up much else in the way to make me at least care who he is. Harrelson, on the other hand, is a pleasure to watch, and, while I’m seen the wise-cracking, smart-ass Woody before, it’s an act I never seem to tire of. His Merritt Osbourne injects the film with some light-hearted humor, and every moment he was on-screen, I at least found myself intrigued by what he might do next, what he might say next. There was an air of unpredictability to what he brought to the table, which made me feel engaged by Osbourne. I could have watched an entire movie of this character shaking down those who came to him for hypnotherapy or using his ability to deduce clues from people to obtain factual information. In fact, I wish I had, as it would have been a far better use of two hours than what NOW YOU SEE ME gave me.
I absolutely respect the hell out of magicians and illusionists who have worked hard to perfect their crafts… and I wish one of them could have done me a solid by being in the same theatre as me while watching NOW YOU SEE ME. They could have gotten up in the front, waved their wand, said some magical chant and made the film disappear right off the screen saving me from having to endure the weak efforts of some talented actors who deserved to do work that’s a hell of a lot better than this.