Conveying the wonder of a magic act on-screen is a difficult enough feat if your film is fully dedicated to it – but when it instead declines into a muddled caper movie, such an achievement is nigh impossible. Now You See Me opens with some fun magic but concludes with a preposterous story and no real message to convey.
The film shows us the story of four illusionists, with different areas of expertise, brought together by a mysterious stranger to complete a series of incredible stunts – robbing a bank, changing accounts balances, and more. They are Jesse Eisenberg’s Daniel Atlas, Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney and Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, respectively an illusionist, an escape artist, a mentalist and a sleight-of-hand expert. That these are their skills is shown via the opening sequence, in which they each perform a trick, and are invited to a shared location by a subtly left tarot card. After this set of tricks, however, the characterisation stops almost entirely. We are shown that Atlas is arrogant, Merritt cheeky, Franco unfulfilled and Henley somehow devoid even of one of these lowliest of traits. The magicians, supposedly the film’s central quartet, have the odd scene of forced banter and repartee, but with no progress made, leaving them feeling disconnected and unreal. Their lines are about fifty per cent delivered over loudspeaker to audiences, only heightening this sense of distance.
This sense of distance is a repeat problem when it comes to the actual ‘magic’ on show. The acts are all clouded by CGI, with swirling fabrics and flashy transitions all colluding to make every action feel propped up by the film’s fictitious world rather than believably unbelievable. The way in which the final trick’s location, an old building, is apparently covered from top to bottom in screens, to make every surface able to show images and light is ridiculous, and more frustratingly still, left completely unexplained.
The majority of the film, meanwhile, is not actually spent watching the magicians – but rather the police effort to foil them. Mark Ruffalo plays the bungling FBI agent in charge of the investigation, and Melanie Laurent joins him as a French Interpol agent consulting on the case. While Laurent is inoffensive enough, Ruffalo’s performance is abject, playing slapstick and stubborn in turn, and yet supposedly a respected agent despite this. This duality is mirrored in two of the supporting performances, heavily featured in the advertising – those of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Caine phones his performance in, hitting the same notes as he always does, but Freeman is as unimpressive as I remember seeing him, glassy-eyed and garishly outfitted.
That Caine had a prominent role in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, an infinitely more impressive film about magicians, is a parallel which does Now You See Me no good at all. Where The Prestige’s story is tied intrinsically to its structure, and calmly shot, Now You See Me is telling a simplistic caper story, and does so with so many panning and spinning shots as to seem almost like a joke at times. Both films also feature twists near the conclusion, but where Nolan’s film easily earns a second viewing to examine the setup, Now You See Me throws a twist so absurd that is left most of the audience in my screening incredulously shaking their heads as they left.