Many things make a film ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ We consider the acting, writing, visual imagery, plot, setting, tone, or myriad other factors. Sometimes it is a matter of execution. Sometimes it is the mere idea that never bears fruit. In every mediocre, or worse, Hollywood production, there is often a good film clawing to get out. Such is the case with Now You See Me, which is an exercise in determining what works and what does not. So many things feel right, but when taken together, the whole is far, far less than the sum of its disparate and ragged parts.
Four magicians are gathered by a mysterious figure. Together, they form The Four Horseman, a troupe that performs magic in the service of social justice. J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is brainy and verbose, a control freak who tries to inspire through grandeur. Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is his former assistant now making a go of it on her own. She entertains through sexuality and escapism. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a ‘mentalist’ who hypnotizes and implants suggestions into both individuals and groups. Finally, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a hustler, a no-name oddball. The quartet hones its act and begins a series of performances that right wrongs and redistribute money to those who are either less fortunate or victimized.
Orbiting them are another foursome. Their financial benefactor, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) tries to profit off them. Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) seeks to debunk them, while both Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) bring the weight of the law against them for their seemingly obvious, but difficult to ascertain, crimes.
Now You See Me employs a clear “Robin Hood” ethic in these escapades, where economic justice flows from entertainment. The Four Horsemen have assigned themselves the roles of judge, jury, and wielders of the sword as they determine victims, assign blame, and dole out awards. To a degree, the film glamorizes this philosophy. Crowds erupt. Villains are subdued and shorn of their financial locks and we, the audience, are meant to root for the perpetrators or, at least, be bewitched by them.
The acting is strong across the board. Harrelson and Eisenberg radiate charisma and inhabit their characters effectively. Ruffalo’s everyman special agent seems a touch forced and dunderheaded for someone so accomplished, while Laurent is charming and a bit underused. The pace is strong and excellent even though there is little action.
As a film, though, director Louis Letterier’s Now You See Me does not hold up. There are wide and obvious plot holes. There are many contrivances necessary for these ‘tricks’ to succeed, that the audience is asked to suspend all reason. Instead of being demonstrably clever, most of these devices smack of convenience. As an example, during one stretch the plot demands that a character steal a certain type of car, cajole pursuers into an extended chase, appear to wreck, but in reality have the car switched at the precise moment with a duplicate car that happens to have a cadaver in it, as well as vital, yet misleading, information, which must be discovered dramatically before the switched car explodes and burns before the body can be identified fully by the authorities. Too many of these conveniences are needed for the plot to unfold.
Compare this to, say, Ocean’s Eleven, which also involves an extended, complex caper. In that case, there is a particular logic to the crime that makes sense in retrospect. Difficult, of course, and perhaps even unrealistic, but at least rational. There is little reason on display in Now You See Me. There is only necessity.
Beyond that, the film’s tone requires particular elements that are lacking. It is shiny, loud, and sometimes funny, and it longs to be liquidly appealing, like Don Draper’s hair product. Upon examination, it is more like a lounge act that is over-produced in order to hide its deficiencies. It is Brylcreem on a bad haircut. To be slick, the script and dialogue must be sharp and quick, punctuated by magnetic and savory discussions. The proceedings must have a debonair gentleman and a jaunty lass, verbally sparring with everyone who mistakenly engages them. The script must have bite, but not the kind that leaves marks or breaks the skin. To put in terms of actors, as much as I like Woody Harrelson, he is no Cary Grant. Perhaps the film could have worked had Eisenberg and Laurent been the two main characters involved in the cat-and-mouse game? Who knows, but the end result would have been, if nothing else, more interesting.
FINAL GRADE: 1/3 Eggheads.