Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: "Now You See Me"

"Come in close, because the more you think you see, the easier it'll be to fool you." -Thaddeus Bradley

The trailer to Now You See Me begins with this thesis, and while it claims to be the aim of the characters, it's also the aim of the filmmakers.  The film uses misdirection to try and distract you
from the fact that it's actually an amalgam of three (or four) other movies, masquerading as something new.

Brought together by a mysterious and shadowy figure, four street magicians with various specialties (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) rise quickly through the ranks of show business to become headliners of their own spectacle.  Performing as "The Four Horsemen" these magicians showcase their talents on a world stage and quickly draw the attention of the FBI and Interpol when they seemingly rob a Parisian bank; from a Casino in Las Vegas.  While the authorities spin their wheels, our protagonists set up their next trick, all the while being pursued by a former magician cum television personality Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).  It sounds like a thrilling ride and a great premise, but the problem lies in the execution.

Just by looking at the poster, you can see that the film wants to borrow from well established genres and familiar films like Ocean's Eleven (remember that poster?) and certainly it begins with the usual assembly of the main cast.  We're introduced to each of the magicians in turn with a special focus on their particular skill and this in and of itself it done quite well.  Their interaction serves as a great way to introduce important background information and tidbits that will inform their interactions later.  Eisenberg's J. Daniel Atlas in particular is well established as a self-involved and narcissistic asshat here, while Woody Harrelson's Merritt McKinney-- a smarmy mentalist who extorts his audience members-- plays foil and Isla Fisher's assistant turned escape artist Henley Reeves looks on, exasperated.  Dave Franco's Jack Wilder shows up at the end and serves as a glorified plot device here but that's okay, he's mostly there for action moments anyway.  As I say, the screenwriters have set this up beautifully, with great little moments of humour injected into the exchanges.  However as soon as the setup is over (and it gets a little clumsy once the four magicians enter the apartment they've come to redezvous in) the genre shifts and the film changes gears completely.

Jump to a year later, the protagonists have become a well known magical act (how?) and next up we're treated to the midpoint of a star maker film, drawing us into the magical act and treating us the second act of Dreamgirls or some other performance film.  By skipping the rise to the top we're able to keep the action moving but we also loose some of the struggle to put together the mystery that we're about to see unraveled and I feel this is where the film starts to go sideways.  I would have liked to have seen less focus on the magical acts themselves (while entertaining) and more focus on the plot because unfortunately, the way things are organized these two things are not the same.  What's more, this second act/genre introduces the rival act in Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), a television star who makes his living by showing the audience how the trick is done.  Here too we're meant to be drawn in by not only the trick, but by the mysterious Thaddeus (himself a failed magician).  Now listen, I love me some Morgan Freeman, but he is just not enough of a distraction to make me overlook the fact that your film has changed genres entirely.  And not well!  So here's the heist/big performance number, which leads us into the third genre: the buddy cop film!

Enter Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent) who is lovely and French, and works for Interpol and is exactly NOT the type of partner that angry and obnoxious Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) wants to have as a partner.  Oh yeah, did I mention he's an FBI agent who suddenly shows up after the Four Horsemen have "robbed" the Parisian bank while on stage in Last Vegas?  Awesome.  You're up to speed.  Oh but since we're already about a third of the way into the movie, we don't have time to set these characters, or show you anything that would cause you to like them (other than any previous affiliations you might have with them as actors) so we're just going to launch right into the third act of our film which co-incidentally is the third act of the buddy cop genre: capturing the bad guy only to be forced to let them go.  The issue here is that not only have we not had time to set up something (anything!) to recommend these two to the audience, now we're going to throw them in a room with the protagonists we HAVE set up (and like better) and let them duke it out cause it's funny.  But who are we supposed to be rooting for?

From this point forward the genres continue to be mixed together in a tangle of tropes until they're almost indistinguishable from scene to scene.  We jump back and forth from one genre to another until suddenly...WE'RE IN A CAR CHASE.

Good god.

It's all misdirection though and the aim is preventing you from seeing what even the most casual observer will notice, which is that the king of all twists is hiding just below the surface of this plot.  I won't ruin it by telling you which film they've borrowed it from but suffice it to say if you've seen it then the ultimate outcome of this one will not be a surprise.  "Come in close, because the more you think you see, the easier it'll be to fool you."  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how this film, which would otherwise be deemed mediocre at best, was able to take the second spot at the box office.  So if you're going to watch it, look close, revel in the tricks, the conversations and all the little tidbits, because if you step back for even a moment, you'll see how the trick is done.

My rating: 2.75 out of 4

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