A good magic show isn't all about the payoff — in fact, it can't be. In order to dazzle, mystify, and distract an audience all the way up to the big reveal, a performing illusionist must put on one hell of a spectacle. The nature of this material can vary: For the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel, it's all about the thrill. For Penn & Teller, it's about comedy. For Siegfried and Roy, it's about being as ostentatious as humanly possible. But all three of these ideas, dissimilar though they may be, are rooted in fun — a fact that the magician-stocked heist film Now You See Me seems to forget halfway through its run.
In fact, the Louis Leterrier movie does have a good deal of fun stocked away: its would-be central team of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco play a motley crew of dissimilar magicians who band together after a mysterious meeting to form a Robin Hood troupe of high level criminals. The group, dubbing themselves the Four Horsemen, use magic shows to rob banks and insurance companies, distributing the money to the working class men and women who have been wronged by big business (yet who can still afford a trip to Vegas and tickets to a magic show... let it slide). The team's elaborate performances make for some of the film's best material, second only to the behind-the-scenes squabbling that stems from personal rivalries and ideological differences. Eisenberg's narcissistic card trickster frequently butts heads with Harrelson's no-nonsense "mentalist" and Fisher's daredevil... all of whom look down upon Franco's sleight-of-hand street hustler.
All attention devoted to the Four Horsemen, whose origins are embedded in mystery, is charming and entertaining, thanks largely to the charisma of the players in question — Eisenberg and Harrelson haven't lost their Zombieland chemistry. Unfortunately, we get barely any time to witness this glory, as Now You See Me seems bent on lending its focus to the other side of the story: FBI Agent Mark Ruffalo's pursuit of the criminal team, and his interractions with Interpol Officer Mélanie Laurent and magic-debunker Morgan Freeman all the while. Far less engrossing than any of the Horsemen's antics, Ruffalo's journey plays out like any hot-on-the-chase summer crime thriller, with the hard nosed agent obsessing over the case, entertaining paranoid conspiracies, and alienating his colleagues and cohorts. For a movie that sells itself on its magic and its all-star cast, it doesn't really seem that interested in either, devoting far more time than necessary to the chase. Why, you might ask?
For the big twist. Of course a summer movie, and one delivered on the pretense of magic, has a big twist ending. Whether it needs, deserves, or benefits from one is another question (the answer: No). But Now You See Me seems to put all its eggs in the big reveal basket, investing a crescendoing burn to the identity of the enigmatic stranger who brought the Horsemen together. Meanwhile, it misses out on what every magician knows to be a key component of the act: the act itself. The lead-up is just as important as the ta-da. And while Now You See Me has plenty of magic up its sleeve in the form of its central tricksters, it's too focused on what's behind the curtain to enjoy the show all the while.
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