The opening line of Louis Leterrier‘s Now You See Me warns “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.” But it doesn’t matter how closely or carlessly you look because there’s not much worth seeing in the film. For a movie that centers on magicians, the most spectacular thing about Now You See Me is how spectacularly it wastes both its premise and its cast. Leterrier seems torn between wanting to provide cool magic tricks that could conceivably be performed in real life, and then he swings wildly to effects-laden set pieces. The story also doesn’t seem to have much affinity towards magicians since it portrays them as smug and self-satisfied. But the film’s most egregious trespass is taking an outstanding cast and forgetting to give them characters. The movie should craft an intriguing illusion, but aside from some clever moments and Mark Ruffalo‘s performance, Now You See Me is a cheap trick.
Street magician Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), pickpocket Jack (Dave Franco), and escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher) are brought together by a mysterious magical benefactor, and turned into the most famous magic act in the world: “The Four Horsemen”. Financially, they’re supported by the wealthy Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and the magicians’ main attraction is using their illusions to take from the rich and give to their poor audiences. After robbing a bank in Paris, they’re pursued by FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and INTERPOL agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), but the magicians always manage to stay one, three, or seven steps ahead. Meanwhile, the Horsemen’s escapades are tracked by Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician who now makes a living exposing the tricks of others. Without the help of Thaddeus, Rhodes and Dray attempt to stop the Horsemen before their ultimate heist.
Despite all the marketing focusing on the Four Horsemen, this is really Rhodes’ story. He’s the one constantly pursuit, the one who has to discover what’s really happening, and the one who has no idea who he can trust. Giving a bunch of screentime to Mark Ruffalo is never a bad thing, and he plays Rhodes’ frustration with a compelling balance of frustration, comedy, and curiosity even though Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt‘s script is constantly pulling us away to watch underdeveloped characters. Sometimes, the movie can skate by like when it focuses on the charismatic Thaddeus or Tressler since they’re “solo acts”, if you will, and are meant to pull focus.
A big cast can be a blessing or a curse, and Now You See Me is cursed. It’s a scattershot movie, and the Horsemen end up getting mowed down as a result. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Henley and Jack, and I could only tell you one thing about Danny and Merritt, which is that they’re both arrogant (not surprisingly, they’re the only two Horsemen we see interrogated by Rhodes and Dray). The group never feels like a devoted team and their bond is superficial. They’re people who work together, and that makes for a deeply uninteresting dynamic.
Furthermore, we can’t believe in their work. Leterrier seems caught between wanting to make convincing magic tricks and going for special effects we can’t possibly believe. I wouldn’t mind the latter if Leterrier was consistent, but instead he goes with them whenever it’s convenient. It’s also easier, but again, if the Horsemen could do the seemingly impossible all the time, it would counter-intuitively make the movie more believable, but it would also remove the need for the charming Thaddeus. The alternative would be to work harder at crafting illusions that could be performed in real life. But even when showing a “real” trick, the story rests far too heavily on Merritt’s hypnosis superpower, which serves as a shortcut rather than a clever trick.
This is particularly frustrating because there are genuinely clever moments in the movie. On the rare occasions when the story manages to successfully pull a fast one, it’s rewarding. We were drawn into the trick, and it was done in a fashion that doesn’t mirror the smarmy attitudes of the movie’s magicians. Sadly, Leterrier is happier to rely on hollow chase scenes that could be dropped into any movie, although there is one fight scene that makes good use of simple magic tricks. That fight is a glimpse of the better movie Now You See Me should be.
Stage magic is about misdirection. You point your audience towards something simple or moderately impressive, and then you turn them back to the dazzling illusion. Now You See Me has it backwards. It points us towards a strong premise and a terrific cast, and then turns us back towards a picture almost completely devoid of worthwhile characters and packed with bland, unimaginative scenes. There’s the occasional glance at something special, but it’s quickly obscured by the film’s weaknesses. You can look closer, look away, or in any direction you want. All you’ll see is a missed opportunity.