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

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 31, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 31, 2013 |

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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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.