British magicians working during the 1980s and 1990s really weren’t very glamorous when compared with their American counterparts. The most famous – Paul Daniels, Tommy Cooper – worked for decades in the country’s unforgiving, smoke-filled, late night clubs or cheery seaside venues before getting their big breaks, gradually honing their acts before raising their profiles with appearances on the small screen, while others such as Harry Corbett or Geoffrey ‘The Great Soprendo’ Durham made their way to the golden goose of Saturday night primetime via children’s television. While all four of the aforementioned are or were talented entertainers in their own right, few people could imagine them selling as many tickets as, say, David Copperfield, who is at the time of writing the biggest selling solo entertainer in history in terms of bums on seats (though if Daniels had been counting back in the day…).
While British magicians played to crowds in wet and windy Great Yarmouth, their American counterparts raked in the cash by staging elaborate shows kissed by the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Or, to highlight the differences in a cruder fashion, around the same time Paul Daniels was marrying his assistant (‘The Lovely’) Debbie McGee, Copperfield was busy perfecting disappearing tricks with the world’s foremost supermodel of the day, Claudia Schiffer. Today our most notable British illusionists – Dynamo, the dead-eyed Derren Brown – have adopted a little of that American razzmatazz, while simultaneously remaining quintessentially British, but it has taken quite some time for the influence to take hold.
It’s quite funny watching the slick group of magicians operating in Louis Leterrier’s patchy Now You See Me with the likes of Daniels and Cooper in mind, as all four – who put on shows as The Four Horsemen – are polished and confident performers straight out of the Copperfield and David Blaine school: it’s all about the grand set piece, the big showstopper, the jaw-dropping finale that will leave the crowd pumping the air with their fists instead of filing quietly onto the streets of Bognor Regis having witnessed the assistant-sawn-in-half trick for the umpteenth time. The Four Horsemen inhabit the world of packed mega-theatres, of large-scale outdoor guerrilla gigs, of light shows and millions of dollars in earnings and huge media interest; it didn’t take long before I lost interest in their shtick and began pining for the understated genius of a Tommy Cooper one-hour special. Now that’s magic, as Paul Daniels used to say.
The magicians in this movie – Jesse Eisenberg as the confident, smarmy one, Woody Harrelson as the confident, smarmy one, Dave Franco as the confident, smarmy one and Isla Fisher as the female confident, smarmy one – are specially selected and teamed up by a shadowy impresario who is apparently operating on behalf of an ancient magic society (though The Magic Circle isn’t mentioned by name, and neither is Sooty’s Magic Club, and those are the two biggest institutions that spring to mind).
This hooded figure – we don’t get to see their face until later – has devised an elaborate series of performances for the Four Horsemen, beginning with the robbery of a Parisian bank, something they manage to do while remaining live on stage in Vegas. The FBI and Interpol quickly become interested, and agents Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) are paired together in order to track and arrest the magicians while simultaneously trading smouldering glances with one another across crowded rooms of barking government spooks. Also keen to catch the Four Horsemen in the act are Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, who both profit from some lazy and predictable casting by playing elderly authoritarian figures for the umpteenth time; one is a former magician who sells DVDs exposing tricks of the trade, the other a wealthy financier who backs the performers before (spoiler alert) ending up on the receiving end of their Robin Hood-esque grandstanding.
The intrigue comes on two fronts: first through the magic set pieces, which accurately bring to mind the big budget, slickly-produced shows of Copperfield and his ilk even if the long-term goal of the Four Horsemen is unclear. Secondly the audience is invited to guess the identity of the figure pulling the strings in the background, something even the magicians themselves don’t know, although anyone who has watched more than ten films in their life will be able to narrow it down to two characters within half an hour. I actually guessed the twist incorrectly in that I picked the wrong one of the two, in fairness to writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, but that’s probably because I didn’t heed the dozens of hints in the screenplay that urge the viewer to look beyond any obvious diversions and concentrate on what is hidden in plain sight. So more fool me.
A mildly diverting caper movie at best, Now You See Me suffers from several flaws in the story, some unconvincing acting, and there’s too much reliance on the audience to accept the barely credible thievery of the magicians. The budget is big, and aside from the all-star-ish cast, it has been blown on a series of expensive-looking magic show set pieces in New York, Las Vegas and New Orleans. However the crane shots, helicopter footage of the cities at night and the seas of excited extras cannot completely mask the lack of depth to the characters or the sketchy plot, and the film must be seen as an extravagant failure as a result (either that or it’s a very clever spin on the illusionist’s most tried-and-trusted modus operandi: your attention has been diverted for a couple of hours by nothing much in particular and the studio has extracted £10 from your pocket while you were looking the other way). Instead of addressing the fact the characters are underdeveloped or the fact the plot is full of holes Leterrier simply throws in one of the most implausible fight scenes and car chases that I’ve seen in many a year. Anyone would be forgiven for giving up entirely at this point.
Part of the problem stems from the way the characters have been written. None of the four magicians, for example, are particularly likeable (or, more importantly, interesting): two are shakedown merchants who we first meet while they are preying on the general public, while Eisenberg’s Danny Atlas (uh, did someone mention Ocean’s Eleven?) is a smug, smooth-talking irritant with no vulnerability to compensate. Fisher’s Henley Reeves is supposedly his ex, but the two actors managed to make me care less about their shared history or their future than I did before I was aware of their existence in the first place, which is quite something.
So, if it’s not the Horsemen, who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for here? Perhaps it’s Dylan Rhodes, the FBI agent, but then he spends most of his time scowling, squinting and generally being a dick: his outrage at being forced to work with (gasp!) a woman who is (la double gasp!) French or when his botched investigation is taken over by (gasp!) a superior is priceless. Freeman’s Thaddeus Bradley is similarly unlikable as he’s the only man who manages to equal Danny’s level of smugness when running through his exposés of the tricks we see during the movie. I ended up sympathising with the one character I presume I wasn’t supposed to sympathise with: Caine’s Arthur Tressler, who is clearly set up as a figure of hate because a) he’s English (bastard!) and b) he’s involved in the insurance industry (the risk-assessing, claim-form loving, policy-writing, small-print-inserting bastard!). But at least he has a sad, hurt face when the Horsemen double-cross him; it’s just a shame that the character disappears mid-way through the film, as though Caine had booked a holiday to the south of France and couldn’t possibly reschedule to fit in any further necessary work on Now You See Me. Though you’d be within your rights to argue that Caine was on holiday from the moment he turned up on set.
While the acting is not universally poor, many here are frankly below par, though the poor writing is a factor that must be considered. Given that Eisenberg and Harrelson gained a few plaudits for their unlikely buddy act in Zombieland it’s disappointing that they fail to re-create a similar spark here, though their performances are at least just about memorable. Considering the Four Horsemen are supposed to be equals it’s a shame that Franco and Fisher are unconvincing and neither makes any kind of lasting impression. Ruffalo fares worse, stinking up the screen in nearly all of his scenes, which is a shame as he is a performer I generally enjoy watching; he can do much better than this, but to re-iterate I think the writing is partly to blame, and the actor isn’t helped by the fact he is required to wear a perplexed or disgruntled look throughout while barking out one clichéd law enforcement phrase after another. It’s all a bit tired and uninspiring.
As usual I find myself ending with a ‘well what the hell do I know anyway?’ as, despite its faults, Now You See Me banked hundreds of millions of dollars and (predictably) an utterly unnecessary sequel is in development. In fact it made substantially more at the box office than two other recent – and vastly superior – films about magicians: Neil Burger’s underrated The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, both of which were probably ignored by large numbers of the general public because they are period pieces. Nolan and Burger’s films succeeded partly because they were filled with interesting characters, whereas here it seems such an essential element has been forgotten about. And thus it appears that people are more likely to go for the razzle dazzle of lights and the flashiness of modern magic shows, which is a shame because this film is actually close to being an outright disaster.
Sadly Leterrier’s only trick is to make his film louder and flashier as it goes on; it’s a transparent one, and it can’t save this empty, rushed caper, but it does at least contain plenty of energy and some of the magic show scenes are entertaining. During the stuttering, never-ending finale, as the Four Horsemen leap off a disused, graffiti-strewn New York building and seemingly dissolve into thousands of dollar bills that rain down on the massive crowd below, I was left wondering what seasoned performers like Paul Daniels or even Jerry Sadowitz would make of it all. And that’s before the magic tree and fairground appeared.
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Written by: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Mélanie Laurent, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 111 minutes