Special to the Observer
If painstaking detail alone could make a movie great, then director Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me,” a witty, colorful homage to magic, would be showered with Oscars come March 2, 2014. But its chances for said statuettes go poof when it materializes into a typical tale of revenge. As consolation, it teaches us a thing about the hocus pocus biz.
We think we want to know how the sorcerer does it. Yet, in following the tale of how four magicians come together, name themselves the Four Horsemen and larcenously wow audiences while confounding the F.B.I., we learn a little about human nature. Call it left brain vs. right brain, realist vs. dreamer, or wistful hopefulness opposed to sheer fatalism.
In this respect, the magical craft may be viewed as a metaphor, a quest to answer the eternal question and, when it’s truly practiced at its glorious best, optimistically suggests that it may indeed be the key to all mysteries. Thus, when you spend two hours inside what is ostensibly one big magic trick, seeing too much takes the shine off the chimera.
Still, there is much wonderment along the way thanks to several slickly fashioned performances and an essentially clever script, intricate of necessity, but all the same too complicated for my tastes. Not the guy in the audience who yells, “I know how you do it,” thank goodness, I prefer to let it wash over me and gather the stardust where it falls.
But keep an eye open. It moves quickly. The Four Horsemen’s first foray into grand theft magic comes in Vegas where, via teleportation, mirrors and some fancy prestidigitation, all of which will be explained to a fault later, they rob a French bank. Shot across the Atlantic by pneumatic-tube, the purloined euros rain down on the audience for the taking.
Responding to the brazen outrage in the form of a philosophical dichotomy are FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, played by Mark Ruffalo, and Alma Dray, the Interpol sleuth sent to help him solve the case. Ruthless in his resolve to separate illusion from reality, Rhodes is challenged in every clue by his idealistic counterpart. She is, after all, a Parisian.
While the agent and his fellow Feds eventually capture for questioning the slippery foursome — but only because they accede to it — an astutely edited, quick splice interrogation scene serves to introduce the war of egos that’s about to begin. And while the law won’t allow our G-man to hold the alleged culprits, we do learn a bit about them.
Each boasting a specialty in the world of abracadabra, aside from the fact that we don’t know if they’re honorable or evil, they are, by virtue of their seeming indomitableness, superheroes…modern Mandrake the Magicians, as it were. Only thing is, there is a fifth power, a super shill pulling the strings, and neither we nor they know who or what it is.
Of course there might be an aspect to this ploy they’re not telling us about, like why Interpol would be sending the F.B.I an assistant in the first place. Then again, the French gal, portrayed by Mélanie Laurent, is pretty in a Scarlet Johansson sort of way, and you can’t discount the possibility that she’s been inserted for repartee and romantic purposes.
The one they want you to think it is right off the bat is Michael Caine’s Arthur Tressler, a multimillionaire megalomaniac insurance tycoon, though I doubt it says all that on his card. A sort of groupie to the Four Horsemen, he’s the financial backing. Since the gang gives all their cash away, we surmise, wrong or right, that he’s only in it for the ego trip.
Also tossed under our noses for possible complicity is Thaddeus Bradley, a debunker a la James Randi (a.k.a. The Amazing Randi) played by Morgan Freeman who explains the workings of the grand gambit from the sidelines. A professional spoiler, he feeds shamus Rhodes info only when he sees fit. An interlacing of alliances occurs as the plot thickens.
But for all the razzle-dazzle, it’s the two main performances that hold it all together. Jesse Eisenberg is convincing as J. Daniel Atlas, a street magician destined for greater things. Matching his talent and arrogance is Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney, a roving mentalist who wasn’t above extorting funds from errant hubbies before joining up.
Pity is, inherently flawed, the film plays a cruel trick on itself. Before the final credits roll, all mysteries, whys, and wherefores are fully explained, as in any run of the mill cop drama. Geez, after being wafted from one stupefying carpet ride to the next, the last thing we want is for “Now You See Me” to tell us that there really is no such thing as magic.
“Now You See Me,” rated PG-13, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Louis Leterrier and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Mark Ruffalo. Running time: 115 minutes