Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic
WASHINGTON – Movie taglines make promises, but they don’t always deliver.
David Cronenberg offered an apt warning for “The Fly” (1986) with “Be afraid, be very afraid,” while Ridley Scott backed up his “Alien” (1979) promise: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
“Now You See Me” becomes its tagline: “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.”
The first half feels like the best magician movie since “The Prestige” (2006) and the best heist flick since “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001). But the closer you look, the more the magician has nothing up his sleeve with a final twist you can guess with simple process of elimination.
Watch as we make the plot disappear. Abracadabra! Now you see a good movie, now you don’t.
It’s a disappointing conclusion for such a clever premise, written by Ed Solomon, writer of “Men in Black” (1997), and Boaz Yakin, director of “Remember the Titans” (2000). A mysterious mastermind recruits four of America’s best magicians — card trick guru Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), psychic hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and master pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — to form a Vegas magic group known as The Four Horsemen.
The Robin Hood magicians pull off elaborate bank heists and give the money to their audiences, drawing the scorn of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and French agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). All the while, tycoon Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) threatens former illusionist Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) not to expose their secrets.
Freeman’s performance recalls real-life magician Val Valentino, who exposed tricks on TV’s “Magic’s Biggest Secrets: Finally Revealed” (1997). His exchanges with fellow Oscar-winner Caine are fascinating displays of legal threats and impending karma, echoing the film’s overarching theme of tangible facts versus leaps of faith.
These are also the competing philosophies of Ruffalo and Laurent, who both consistently turn in quality work, whether it’s Laurent in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Beginners” (2010), or Ruffalo in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “The Kids Are All Right” (2010). Here, they make convincing agents with underlying sexual tension.
The casting is also fitting for The Horsemen. Fisher has risen from a stage-five-clinger in “Wedding Crashers” (2005) to coveted roles like Myrtle in “The Great Gatsby” (2013). Franco shows he’s just as capable as his older brother James, who also performed magic this year in “Oz: The Great and Powerful” (2013). Harrelson is great in just about everything he does, from “Cheers” (1982) to “No Country for Old Men” (2007), and Eisenberg is charismatic as the smartest person in the room.
I had a chance to interview Eisenberg a few weeks ago in Georgetown, along with Asawin Suebsaeng of Mother Jones, Ryan Bacic of The Hoya and Christopher Hook of Cloture Club. The Oscar-nominated “Social Network” star talks just as fast in person as he does on screen with a mind that’s nine steps ahead of his mouth. Our interview covered lots of ground, including Eisenberg’s enthusiasm to once again work with Woody Harrelson after “Zombieland” (2009).
“When they told me they were thinking of Woody for it, I thought it would be great,” Eisenberg said. “We’re kind of like peers and rivals in (‘Now You See Me’), so because we have a different dynamic in this movie, it’s OK. If we had the same relationship as we had in ‘Zombieland,’ it would just be annoying to see us trying to hijack this movie with our other funny bit.”
This “different dynamic” is exactly what drew Eisenberg to the part. Unlike past roles, this character isn’t awkward. He’s confident, flashy and a ladies man. His Daniel Atlas shrugs off actual women, while his Mark Zuckerberg befriended them digitally by hitting “refresh.”
“I realized this would actually be good for me to step out of my comfort zone … and play a character who’s more of an intense showman,” Eisenberg said.
“I was reading about magic and watching magic shows, and then I realized at some point, I have to not read anything and just practice. I’d walk around with a deck of cards everyday and I just became proficient in some basic slight-of-hand moves.”
Eisenberg also accompanied magic consultant David Kwong to see real-life magicians, including David Copperfield, David Blaine and Penn & Teller. From this, he got an idea of how he’d like to play the character, which initially clashed with Louis Leterrier’s vision as director.
“I said I would like to play it kind of like David Blaine, who dresses in jeans and is kind of casual and almost affects an air of disinterest,” Eisenberg said.
“He said he didn’t want that. He wanted something more like Copperfield, somebody who’s kind of flashy … I disagreed vehemently and I almost didn’t want to do the movie … And then he showed me pictures that he had an artist draw of the characters and how they would look, and I immediately realized the aesthetic he was going for.”
That aesthetic is full of digital camera moves, through keyholes and through the eyes of playing cards. Like David Fincher, Leterrier does a lot of takes, which Eisenberg enjoys, saying, “You can do something a million times and try to get something good.”
The French director makes multiple jokes at the expense of his native land, highlighting the contrast between American and European films and the difference between a Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”) and a Michael Haneke (“Amour”). Ironically, he complained to The Huffington Post about Hollywood studio meddling on “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) and “Clash of the Titans” (2010).
“The problem on both ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’ is a problem I’ve encountered since I came to Hollywood,” he said.
“‘Hulk’ was my first Hollywood movie and I really wanted to work with Marvel and I really wanted to do that movie with American actors. And then they were like, ‘Oh, welcome, welcome. Great news, Louis. We just got a release date. It’s a year from now.’ I’m like, ‘Fantastic, we have to go. Where’s the script?’ They said, ‘Actually, that’s the problem, we don’t have a script.'”
“It’s very obvious in ‘The Incredible Hulk.’ The first half of the movie is really mine and the second half is the studio’s expected Hulk movie — two giants kicking each other’s (butts).”
Leterrier admits he originally wanted Ruffalo to play The Hulk, but the studios wanted Ed Norton, who had just played a magician in “The Illusionist” (2006). Now, Ruffalo has done both, playing The Hulk in “The Avengers” (2012) and joining Leterrier for a magic show in “Now You See Me.”
The fact that the film ultimately fails must reflect back on Leterrier. Whether it’s real money or magician flash paper, the buck stops with the director. For all his magic in the first half, Leterrier ultimately feels small compared to Christopher Nolan (“The Prestige”) and Steven Soderberg (“Ocean’s Eleven”).
His high-concept twist feels done simply for twist’s sake, relying too much on coincidence and eye-rolling exposition. Just because you show Morgan Freeman in a jail cell doesn’t make it shocking like “Shawshank.” Instead, it reminded me how weak it is compared to those I didn’t see coming: “Psycho” (1960), “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Chinatown” (1974), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “The Crying Game” (1992), “The Usual Suspects” (1995) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999).
Perhaps its fate that “Now You See Me” arrives the same weekend as “After Earth” by M. Night Shyamalan, who’s shamefully stuck in twist mode. I’d need to see it again to know whether the twist holds up on second watch, but as you work out the film’s logic on the drive home, I have a feeling you’ll feel duped. As the tagline says, “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.”
★ ★ 1/2