Now You See Me (2013, directed by Louis Leterrier) is candy. It's a caper movie about magicians, which is a high concept that says everything about the film. They say that a Hollywood pitch needs to be forty words or less. This movies pitch is only six words. That must have appealed to the suits. It appeals to me, a bit. I've been watching a lot of heavy films in the last month and a half, so candy is not something at which I turn up my nose. Not at all.
The plot of Now You See Me finds a quartet of street magicians recruited by a mysterious benefactor who forges them into an act called "The Four Horsemen." None of them know who their benefactor is, but they're all intrigued and a year later, they make their debut in Vegas. Their first show culminates in a bank heist. The bank in question is in France, but the Four Horsemen contrive to rob it by magic from the stage in Las Vegas. A convenient alibi, given that the bank really is robbed. This stunt makes the Four Horsemen instant celebrities and the world, and the FBI and Interpol, await their next show. Meanwhile, the cop on the case is one Dylan Rhodes, who is none to happy to be pulled off his regular assignment for something he regards as frivolous. He's even less enamoured of being teamed with French Interpol agent Alma Dray. During the initial interrogation of the Four Horsement, the magicians rub Rhodes the wrong way, and he vows to beat them even though he knows nothing about magic. Professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley approaches Dray and Rhodes to provide that expertise and he shows them how the bank heist was done. The trail of the Horsemen takes everyone to Vegas, where the quartet turn on their financier, Arthur Tressler, by draining his bank account to pay the members of the audience, all hand-picked as victims of Hurricane Katrina who got no relief from Tressler's insurance company. It becomes immediately clear to Rhodes and Dray that the Four Horsemen are enacting some kind of vendetta. Catching them before they can complete that vendetta is another matter. The trail leads them to New York....
Now You See Me is all plot. Character development? Subtext? Mise en scene? That's all for other movies. This is a movie whose cinematic anima is a mad rush from plot point to plot point without really stopping to look at the characters it has. This is kind of a shame, because this is a movie chock full of really good actors. The Four Horsemen, played respectively by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are set up as the protagonists in the elaborate pre-credit sequence that brings them together, but afterward, they're mostly ciphers, with hastily sketched personalities. They're off-stage for huge chunks of the film. In another film they would be the villains, but this film indulges in a bit of sleight of hand when it comes to coding its heroes and villains. The characters chasing the Four Horsemen fare somewhat better, and it's one of the film's more amusing conceits that they correspond to the Four Horsemen: three men, one woman. The central character is Rhodes, played by Mark Ruffalo as a gruff movie cop, while Dray is played by Mélanie Laurent as the exasperated partner. The big guns play Bradley and Tressler: Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, respectively. Given that these are the characters who get the most screen time, they're the ones who are developed, though I'm using the word, "developed," very loosely. The characters, like the events of the film, are also plot points, and the movie muddies its narrative by calling into question the motives of all of the chasers. It also muddies the narrative by adopting the ostensible form of a buddy cop movie. In some ways, this is a wunza movie ("One's a tough cop from the FBI. One's Frenchwoman trying to prove herself in a male-dominated profession."). Sometimes, it overplays this, but it almost has to given the way the film ends.
I hesitate to call this a puzzle film, because a puzzle presupposes the ability of the audience to piece everything together, and in this regard, the clues littering the film are useless, because the film withholds certain information until the exegesis at the end. Oh, there are minor mysteries that can be solved, but this is one of those films where the plot points are markers for the clever revelations at the end of the film rather than actual, useful clues. Once the identity of the Four Horsemens' mysterious recruiter is revealed, there's nothing for the film to do but explain its tricks. And explain them it does, even the most improbable of them. In doing so, it robs the audience of a little bit of the magic. There's no mystery here in the broader sense of the word. Even though it demonizes its debunker (and I wonder what James Randi thinks of this film, given that Bradley is a thinly-veiled jab at him), it goes to pains to debunk itself.
Cinematically, this is a hyperactive film: the camera careens through its set piece while the whole is edited at a brisk pace (though, it must be said, not so fast as to obscure anything). Anything that isn't narrative is cheerfully thrown over the side. I can't even say that this isn't fun to watch, because it totally is. It understands the value of razzle dazzle, which is appropriate given its subject matter. It's got a Vegas stage act in it, after all. I'm not even sure if it matters that we don't get to know any of the characters, because taking the time to actually show the relationship between Jesse Eisenberg's character and Isla Fisher's--who we are told but not shown that they are ex lovers--would detract from its overall aesthetic. I'm not going to grouse about the film's choices along these lines, because ultimately, they're excressences that would only drag in the slipstream. To some extent, I appreciate the economy of this film. It's stripped down and highly polished, a machine of a movie. A mechanistic movie. A movie that didn't really satisfy me in spite of my desire for candy. I love pop cinema as much as anyone (you are free to mock me for this statement, but it's true), and this is totally pop cinema so I should probably like it better than I do. But it's pop cinema as product rather than pop cinema as gleeful entertainment. There's an inherent cynicism in such a thing. Still, I never tuned out of it. It knows how to string the audience along, which is why it was a surprise hit. There's a crude art to that, it's true, one that eludes a lot of films that are otherwise better than this one.
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