Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt
“Some things are better left unexplained,” a character intones at one point in Now You See Me, a wise lesson that the film’s trio of screenwriters should’ve taken to heart. This heist film, in which a quartet of magicians are highly intelligent thieves (or are they?), becomes more nonsensical and inexplicable the more we learn about how these tricksters have robbed banks (or have they?) and sent federal agents on various wild-goose chases (or were…well, you get the idea). Before we find out the answers to a number of pressing mysteries in the film, that knowledge is all we crave. Once Now You See Me reveals all, we’re left questioning the shreds of logic this film adheres to, having been swindled out of an enjoyable moviegoing experience.
An early sign of trouble is that Now You See Me is a mighty impatient film. Its director, Louis Leterrier is unwilling to let his camera stay still for too long, often presenting swirling, 360-degree panoramas around various characters for no apparent reason. When Leterrier does allow us a static five-second shot, it’s a welcome bit of relief in an otherwise dizzying and amped-up bit of tomfoolery. The magical foursome at the heart of the film—played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco—are brought together under mysterious circumstances in a dilapidated New York City apartment, and provided with computerized blueprints and clues by an unknown guiding force. One year later, they’re headlining a show at the MGM Grand, in which they pull off an insane stunt: robbing a Parisian bank from the stage, with the help of a random volunteer. A grumpy Fed (Mark Ruffalo) is partnered with a young Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) to figure out how these illusionists could do such a trick, and to make sure they don’t get another chance to bilk a major financial institution. But, surprise, they’ve got more planned.
Now You See Me has an abundantly overqualified cast, also including Michael Caine as a wealthy benefactor and Morgan Freeman as an ex-magician who now traffics in debunking tricks to the adoring public. It’s a shame, then, that they’re all stranded in a movie that makes absolutely no sense, either from moment to moment or taken as a whole. The most consistent aspect to this entire affair is its undeserved arrogance. Eisenberg does not seem too far here from his Mark Zuckerberg, from The Social Network. He was excellent in that film as an cocky, extremely intelligent young man who didn’t care if he alienated those who struck him as inferior creatures. And he got away with it precisely because, while we may admire Zuckerberg, it’s hard to paint him as a truly heroic type. Unfortunately, Eisenberg’s character in this film—whose sole trait is that he’s obnoxiously confident—is presented heroically despite being as supercilious as Zuckerberg was. And so it goes with Harrelson’s mentalist (he fares slightly better because even a smug Woody Harrelson is kind of fun to watch), Franco’s sleight-of-hand artist, and Fisher’s ex-assistant/escape artist. They’re all so convinced of their magical talents, to the point where you may find yourself hoping they’ll be given a harsh reality check and soon.
Alas, such poetic justice is not to arrive, as Now You See Me, much like another painful effort earlier this year, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, is thoroughly enamored with the awe and sheer power of real magic. (You could argue that cinema holds the power of such magic, but this movie isn’t the best example.) The script, by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt, spends an awful lot of time setting up many of the centerpiece tricks, unfortunately deciding to not fill in any of the characters with more than, at best, a single trait. Franco’s sole trait, for example, is that he’s younger than the others. Freeman is coyly avuncular, Laurent a true believer despite her badge, and Fisher is mostly set dressing. (The majority of her dialogue is in the scenes when the would-be Abracadab Four present their tricks, all while Leterrier’s camera swoops and soars around the stage. As such, she often sounds like an audio-animatronic presenter at a theme-park attraction than a flesh-and-blood person.) Who are these people? Where did they come from? What legacy did they have before they teamed up? (Franco gushes over Eisenberg as having been a major influence, but we first see the latter doing street magic, which makes you wonder if his star rose that high to begin with.) Now You See Me has no interest in character arcs, backstories, or basic development, sadly.
After Fast & Furious 6, a film whose climactic action sequence takes place on the new Guinness World Record holder for Longest Runway Ever, it would seem nearly impossible for another of this summer’s movies to displace it as the dumbest of all. And yet, here comes Now You See Me, full of misplaced swagger and braggadocio. Its ensemble cast is certainly impressive, even if only for the kitsch value of seeing mini-reunions of actors from films like Zombieland or The Dark Knight. But the magic on display, like the characters, is empty and lifeless. Consider a scene in which Freeman tells Ruffalo’s FBI agent about the three stages of a truly large magic trick, much like a speech Michael Caine delivered in The Prestige. The latter film understood, respected, and admired the true power of whatever magic is and could be. Now You See Me thinks that paying lip service to magic equals respecting it, when in reality, all this film does is prove its total lack of comprehension of what illusions can really achieve.
— Josh Spiegel