"Now You See Me" and the Critical Double Standard When It Comes to Empty Cinematic Spectacles

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Now You See Me and the Critical Double Standard When It Comes to Empty Cinematic Spectacles

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | May 31, 2013 | Comments ()


Magic is all about distraction. With one hand, a good magician focuses your eyes exactly where he wants, and while you're not looking, he performs the trick with the other. The interesting about Louis Letterrier's new caper, Now You See Me is that the magic itself is the distraction. A good heist needs a diversion, and what better diversion than an elaborate magic show?

The problem with Now You See Me, at least from a critical standpoint, are the expectations one builds at the prospect of a fantastically assembled cast -- Woody Harrelson, Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco comprise the Four Horsemen, who put on these elaborate magic shows, while Mark Ruffalo plays the detective tasked with uncovering their secrets and busting them -- as well as the subject material. When there's magic involved, a percentage of the population expects actual magic instead of movie magic, and while audiences are willing to overlook the impossible absurdity of a franchise like Fast & Furious, they're often less forgiving where the point is the magic itself.

However, if you're willing to overlook the fact that the magic is not the point, but the diversion, then Now You See Me becomes an impossibly absurd -- and impossibly fun -- caper film that whizzes by with such breakneck speed that you're also willing to overlook the faulty logic and the innumerable red herrings just as you're willing to overlook the fact that there is a 28 mile runway in Fast and Furious 6.

I was able to overlook it, anyway, and while the magic itself certainly doesn't hold up to close examination, I ended up having a hell of a entertaining time trying to keep up, while wondering what the point of it all is (ultimately, there is no point, but that's the summer movie season for you). Nobody does smug, fast-talking dick better than Eisenberg; Woody Harrelson -- who plays a hypnotist -- is his usual charming self; while Isla Fisher -- the escape artist -- is great to look at (that, sadly, that is the extent of her role). Never mind that, by the end of the movie, we know no more about the characters than we did at the beginning -- they're all tropes tinged with the actor's personalities -- Now You See Me is not a character piece; it's a spectacle.

It's not as though, either, that Letterier doesn't attempt to explain the behind-the-scenes magic, and this is where Morgan Freeman's character is invaluable. He plays a former magician who has made a career out of exposing magician's secrets, and he's there to both assist and taunt Mark Ruffalo's investigator, explaining how the tricks were performed and reminding the detective that the Four Horsemen are always a step ahead. That first of three illusions involves transporting an audience member from Vegas to Paris, where the audience member assists in robbing $3 million from a bank vault, which is then showered back onto the Vegas audience. How did they do it? I'm not going to ruin that for you. The reveals are the best part of Now You See Me, especially the revelation that the movie is a magic trick in and of itself.

Fast & Furious 6 holds a 72 percent on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment, and that movie was dumb as frog balls. There is a globule of snot festering on a sidewalk with a higher IQ than that movie. Meanwhile, Now You See Me currently stands at 41 percent, and the difference is something of a mystery to me. Now You See Me is easily the smarter movie, the acting is light years ahead, it's more structurally sound, the writing is much better, and the magic is, in my opinion, as impressive as the stunts in Fast & Furious 6. I guess the difference is that no one expects realism out of F&F or a superhero movie, while a movie grounded in reality like Now You See Me is targeting an older, more critical audience less willing to suspend disbelief over a magic trick because they're more interested in yelling GOTCHA! when it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But Now You See Me shares a lot in common with F&F 6: It is slick, empty, and wildly entertaining. But it's also better executed.

It's worth mentioning, too, that there is a card trick in the first scene that actually works on the audience (or at least me), and I have no idea how they pulled it off (and honestly, I don't want to know, because that mystery is part of the fun), but it immediately pulled me into the movie and from then on, I was at its goddamn mercy.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • disqus_rCJTTYmkV8

    Is it just me, or does Woody look a lot like Ed O'Neill in that header pic?

  • pumpkin

    It's not just you.

  • disqus_rCJTTYmkV8

    If I want to be impressed by magic, I can watch Nick Einhorn for free:


  • Wembley

    I just can't...Eisenberg.

  • googergieger

    Pretty much hit on the head with the double standard. But that's what being a hipster does for you.

  • Lindsey Gregory

    I have a thing for Eisenberg (since Zombieland), and this movie definitely looks intriguing and entertaining. But BF wants to see After Earth which looks fancy, yet stupid as fuck...let's see if I can convince him to see the better movie.

  • That cast, aside from Dave Franco, is hard to resist.

  • senecafalls

    I hate this new trend of critics being forgiving to dumb ass movies or movies with built-in fan bases just because, well....people will like it anyway why don't we try not to wade too far in? See also - Star Trek into Stupidity.

  • the_wakeful

    Sometimes people like movies you don't. See - Stark Trek into Pretty Decentness.

  • senecafalls

    Wow, you don't say! I never thought of that before!!!

    But seriously, isn't film criticism supposed to be separate from just liking or not liking a movie? re: Star Trek - if you look at that movie logically there are so many loopholes and contrivances and cliches

  • Mrs. Julien

    It's almost as though different people like different things.

  • That's crazy talk!

  • lowercase_ryan

    I'm not ashamed to say that magic fascinates me, and I don't give two shits how the tricks are done. Magic is a craft, a skill, an art. Watching a good magician is really about the show and showman(person?)ship.

    When face to face with good slight of hand I'm like a 13 year old that just discovered Cinemax. Rapt attention, creepy smile, unblinking.

    RE: Magic in movies. Has anyone else seen Shade? With Gabriel Byrne and Sly Stallone? The writer/director was a magician along with some others on the production team.

    Still blows me away http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You should watch some of David Kwong's stuff - he was a consultant on the movie. His brand of magic is almost crazily complex calculations that look like magic - though there is some sleight of hand involved.



  • lowercase_ryan

    that's pretty cool

  • Kim Voeks

    One sentence review of "Now You See me" - And now you wish you hadn't. The movie wishes it was as clever as it's premise. It's dishonest. If it is supposed to be about magic, then some of the magic ought not to be post production CGI. The holes in it are big enough to drive a Brinks truck through and the big twist really doesn't matter. ( I knew the twist going in and it made no difference in the outcome of the film.) It's a dumb movie pretending that it's smart by putting on a pair of glasses. Fast and Furious Infinity knows it's dumb and delights in going Boom and not much else.

  • marya

    I absolutely agree. I didn't actually see the ending coming, because I'm fairly uncritical while I'm in the middle of watching a movie. But when it did come, it was unsatisfying and not earned. A crime caper film should delight you and satisfy you as you watch the clever trick unfold - think Oceans 11, The Sting, or The Usual Suspects. I really wanted this movie to be one of those, and for the first 20-30 minutes, it seemed like it was going to be.

    So, yes, I guess I am holding it to a higher standard, for trying to be excellent and failing. Maybe it's not fair, but I don't know. There's nothing to say about Fast and the Furious, because there's just nothing there. What would you critique? The abs of the leading men? The choice of paint color on the fast cars? No one critiques the quality of the food at McDonalds, because we all know on some level it's not really food, just salt, ketchup and beef byproducts. Fast and Furious isn't a movie, it's an hour and a half of McDonalds for your eyeballs.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I have an age-inappropriate crush on young Mr Eisenberg and since this looks like a fun movie anyway, I'm looking forward to streaming it soon.

  • DoctorDouchebag

    It takes a special kind of troll to try to ruin movies by claiming their unrealistic, well no shit Sherlock can't get anything past you. That's the whole point, to suspend your disbelief for an hour and a half in order to enjoy yourself, same thing goes with magic, obviously the women wasn't sawed in half, but you go along with it and in the process you are swept up with a sense of wonderment. Magic and cinema are the same in that regard, if you are so jaded that you have to jump up and scream that the bunny was hidden in a secret compartment in the hat than why did you even bother to come to the show in the first place?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    You're one of those assholes who gives stuff like Battleship 5 stars on Amazon, right?

  • DoctorDouchebag

    Bad is Bad, but if you start questioning everything you end up screaming that Starwars is a stupid movie because you can hear the explosions in space. At some point you have to accept that you are being fooled, but in a good way.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    But that point is different with every person. And what if you're being fooled in a bad way?

    Anyway, if you stop questioning everything, you can go and turn your brain in. You don't need it anymore.

  • DoctorDouchebag

    Don't you remember how you felt the first time you saw Gandalf lit up the halls of Moria, or when Yoda explained how the force works, or when the ugly gunslinger shot the guy from his bath. Or even when you realized that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and the kid saw him as a ghost.

    There is a difference between accepting that looking at the right hand may cause you to miss what the left hand is doing and blindly following every piece of propaganda. You have to choose whether you want to merely exist or whether you want to be alive.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Sweet Godtopus, now he goes existential on us! Without having a clue about it!

    Basically: "cogito, ergo sum." If you don't use your head, you're a vegetable. You only exist. That's what existentialism is about (among other things).

    Nothing stops you from enjoying something, if you are willing and able to think about it later, and you can distinguish between them. You can certainly enjoy bad movies, if you are willing and able to acknowledge that they are bad.

    It seems to me that you don't want to take the second step. Which literally makes you stupid, by choice. You also seem to tell others to not take that second step. Which means you try to spread stupidity.

  • DoctorDouchebag

    Wow you questioned my intelligence, truly you have won this argument in the most elegant and graceful manner, well done. And congratulations on turning yet another corner of the internet into a cesspool of human degradation, you really are a shining example for us all.

    All I wanted was to try and express how I felt, foolish me, thank you for showing me the error of my ways, I promise never again to think that I am allowed to give my opinion without someone demoting me to the level of a piece of furniture.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    You were essentially talking about "switching off your brain". Don't fault me for coming to the conclusion that you willingly dumb yourself down.

    And please be fair, it was a vegetable, not a piece of furniture.

  • googergieger

    Well rule of thumb is, movie's create their own rules and then have to follow them. If the movies say anything is possible, then so be it. If they say, some things are possible and then go out of their way to just do anything and everything cause it's a movie, well then you got a problem.

  • Regarding the magic in the film, the problem is that Now You See Me wants it both ways. Fast & Furious 6 knows what it is from start to finish, so the rules are established. All of the major set pieces are impossible. Now You See Me wants to present some tricks as possible, but later it pulls out tricks that are generated by special effects. If it had simply chosen one and stuck to it, that would be fine. I never needed an explanation of the magic tricks, but once the film started out saying "These tricks can be explained", then it laid out that ALL of the tricks could be explained. It then breaks its own rules by raising the question that if some of the tricks are impossible and could only be done with digital effects, then are the Four Horsemen truly magic? Of course not, but their tricks are no longer grounded in the reality the film presented at the outset.

    I have many other complaints with the film as well, but I figured I would address the magic aspect of your criticism.

  • pajiba

    I definitely see that, Matt, and I understand the complaint. I think for me, though, by the time that they had decided to completely break the rules, the movie no longer seemed to be about the magic. I was so captivated by the con by that time that the lack of explanation seemed ... minor. When everything else in the movie is so far superior to everything else in F&F, the rule-breaking complaint feels more like a critical quibble, rather than an audience one.

  • marya

    It's not actually a quibble, it's a fairly serious flaw in the construction of the movie. A movie builds a world with its own rules, and there needs to be a pretty good justification for breaking those rules. I feel like we talk about this all the time on Pajiba.

    I recently watched Inception for the first time, and there was a line that cracked me up later, but totally worked in context - spoilers ahead, but since I'm about 5 years behind everyone else, whatevs.

    So they've built this world where you can enter someone's dream and manipulate it, and then you can even go in to a dream within a dream. Okay, I'm on board, sure. But then a character propose going to a THIRD LEVEL of dream, and the other characters act like he's insane - "No one can go to a third dream level, it's never been done!" The pearl-clutching is off the charts. And of course that's ridiculous - all of the dream-stuff is totally arbitrary, so why couldn't you go FOUR dreams deep or TWENTY-SEVEN dreams deep? Yet I only thought about this later, because the movie was so well done that I bought in to that reality and its intrinsic rules. The stakes felt very real for those characters and I was very concerned about whether they could pull off that impossible third dream.

    All of that is to say, that Now You See Me was kind of a lazy movie. The first half or third of the movie was engaging and intriguing, as it set up the world, but the payoff was disappointing. If you're going to make a crime caper film, some of the fun is in the reveal, which should feel totally organic and inevitable. This one felt pretty arbitrary.

    And I'm sorry, but the script gets an immediate 10 points off for this line (spoiler below, sorta-kinda-not really):










    "I predicted everything...except for you." I've read bodice-rippers with better dialogue than that.

  • Mrs. Julien


  • disqus_rCJTTYmkV8

    You make that sound so dirty.

  • Carrie/Teabelly

    I saw FF6 last night and enjoyed it a lot (even though it is dumb, it's entertaining and there were multiple women who did stuff other than pine for men, which was a revelation in itself). I saw the trailer for Now You See Me and was definitely intrigued, so if it's half as fun as FF I'll happily give it a go. Even if, sadly, the women are yet again set pieces.

  • BWeaves

    The audience for this movie is also less likely to vote on Rotten Tomatoes, or even have a computer. My parents, cough, cough.

    Also, I doubt a bank in France would have US dollars in its vault, let alone $3 million of them. Money is all electronic anymore. I can't remember the last time I touched actual cash, and I live in the USA.

  • Grant

    It's actually in Euros in the movie.

  • zyzzyva

    They were Euros in the French bank.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Actually, in Europe, many people still pay cash. Here, it is faster than using your card, because many banks/stores still require a signature on a sales slip. It takes ages before the cash register spits those out.

    I only use my card when I'm out of cash, and I get annoyed when someone uses one ahead in the queue.

  • Margrete

    Actually, I live in Europe and never use cash. It's faster because no stores I've been to the last five years still require a signature on sales slips. Usually I've paid and moved on before I otherwise would have found the correct amount of cash. I only use cash when I've met my grandmother and she gives me some "spending money", and I get annoyed when somebody ahead in the queue uses cash.

    My point is, we're both from the same continent so we're the same and different, and I like to nitpick.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Different countries, I guess. In the UK and Ireland, credit and debit card use is much more widespread and easier. In Germany, many stores don't even accept credit cards (though they will accept debit cards of domestic banks).

    And, if you're into nitpicking, I wrote "many people". ;)

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Are you serious? Do you use a debit card for every purchase? What about if you want something from a vending machine?

  • BWeaves

    Actually I never use a debit card. Credit only, but I pay it off at the end of every month, so I get to keep the money and make interest a month longer. However, every vending machine I've seen takes credit and debit cards. I don't, however, every buy anything from a vending machine, so the point is moot for me.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I see. So you're too high-falutin' to sully your hands with cash AND vending machines.

  • BWeaves


    I mean, why yes.

  • e jerry powell

    Now I'm going to have wicked thoughts about Terrence Stamp's naughty bits for two days.

  • el_mediocre

    There are card readers on vending machines now.

    Kinda sad if you ask me.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Not where I work, it's considered high tech for the machines to accept dollar bills.

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