Film Review- Now You See Me
115 minutes – PG13 for cussing, slight violence
Chicanery is the art of forced perspective- the patter of the performer draws the eye of the audience, while the work is being done elsewhere to present the prestige of the trick. It is natural that for scriptwriters and directors feel a kinship to magicians- like illusionists, they exploit the artificial borders of perspective to control and manipulate the audience. In Now You See Me, we have an act that works fact to distract you from the hollowness. Alfred Hitchcock referred to this kind of movie as a refrigerator film: it tastes great when fresh, but gets bad if you leave it in storage. I prefer to think of this as a cake film: it’s good but it gets stale fast.
A mysterious mastermind bands together four struggling street magicians. There’s Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a David Copperfield figure fallen from grace to doing card tricks on the Vegas drag. There’s Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a master mesmerist now left to running badger schemes in diners; there’s Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a New York pickpocket; and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), an escape artist who’s a mashup of Houdini and Kari Byron of Mythbusters. The four buskers follow a mysterious clue to an apartment which fills with smoke, and then…
They all die horribly in a tenement fire. I never knew roasting flesh could be so entertaining!
But seriously: One year later they are the Four Horseman, the biggest and must hyped magic act in the business. Of course, stage magic is a side line to their real business model: robbing banks. The perfect alibi is for your crimes to take place while you are being watched performing card tricks on pay-per-view.
On their trail is FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), a greasy and graceless bull whose natural element is intimidation. For his shoddiness, he gets saddled with Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), who is cool and arrogant as only the French can be, at least when she isn’t providing exposition about the operations and practices of stage magicians. Coming after the Fourth Horsemen from another corner is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a James Randi type debunker out to expose the Four Horsemen. He goes after the Horsemen with nothing but cameras, wit, and an advanced understanding of the tricks the Horseman are using, but he still gets ahead of the Feds.
And so we’re off to the races as the cops and the skeptics chases our merry men (and woman) in escapades that skip from Vegas to New Orleans to New York City. Nobody grows or learns or changes, but there are enough fakeouts, stunts, and tricks to keep this film from becoming boring.
The Director: Louis Leterrier- I didn’t recognize the name at first, but Leterrier does have a few elements that you can follow through his movies (overall I consider this to be inferior to Unleashed, Leterrier’s best film). He’s a cinematographer fond of overhead shots of running people, whirling the camera to enhance the kinitecism of the action. This is certainly a better outing than the turgid Clash of the Titans, perhaps showing that Leterrier is better left to filming the urban street scene than the fantastic milieu. He may be a better director of people than of wonders; his films suffer from CGI and succeed on the basis of smartly paced character interaction. His locations are generic- there are a few shots of tropes like Mardi Gras to remind of where the action is, but it’s pretty interchangeable. What I recognize and don’t like is that he’s using dizziness as a substitute for good choreography- his camera is always spinning, always moving, never holding a fixed spot.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg is doing a less likable neurotic this time- tones of the Mark Zuckerberg performance, but as more of a comic foil than a straight man in this instance. Woody Harrelson is going for an oddball performance- all long stares and awkward pacing- his hypnotist unsettles everybody else. Mark Ruffalo turns in a very dislikable antagonist, though I doubt that the FBI employs anybody so unkempt outside of undercover roles. Melanie Laurent is a bit too glamorous to be plausible. I liked Isla Fisher a good deal, and was surprised to see she hasn’t been in more roles. I’d say she’d work as The best acting moment in the film is a standoff between Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.
Script: (Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt): The script may have holes but it moves fast enough along the rails that it still works as a ride. Certain characters are under-developed, we’re left wanting more screen time with the 4 horsemen, but overall it’s a forgettably fun little piece. The best dialogue tends to be between the 4 Horsemen- a combination of professional rivalry with identifiable characters. More exposition about the tricks would have been good, too, but this isn’t really a film about showing you the tricks. It’s a film about taking your money without leaving you too angry.
Music/Costume/Etc.- nothing really stands out, except possibly the art direction by Kim Jennings. The sets are as dazzling as they should be, the tricks and the fx are great.
Conclusion: In the end, I found this movie to be as hollow as a top hat- there’s a good show to be had, but you are never really given wonder or magic, only flash and motion.
Fair Value of the Film: $10.25. For a fan-boy looking for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t provoke a frenzy of nerd-rage, this is your best choice.
Post-Spoiler Subtext Analayst (SPOILER ALERT)
Now You See Me is part of a trend of films that we’re seeing lately, following in the wake of Inception (which was itself derived from Paprika). And that is the heist film as a metaphor for film making. I really hated the message of Yakin and Ricourt’s script, because it boils down to ‘shut up, don’t ask questions, and look at the pretty colors’. Fuck you, you committee of hacks. You’re writing for the sweet spot on the price point of earnings rather than for the permanence of your art.
Of course Hollywood elites identify themselves with master criminals; Hollywood was founded as a patent evasion scheme, to dodge Edison’s IP lawyers (And THAT is irony). The majority of western history (and thus the fundaments of the professional culture) has regarded dramatists as adjuncts and analogues to thievery, fraud, prostitution, and blackmail.
The heist film is an established formula. Now all you have to do is add a noun to season the formulate. It’s a heist film- In Dreams (Inception). It’s a heist film- with a star studded super ensembles cast (Ocean’s Eleven). It’s a heist film- with miniature cars! (The Italian Job 2003).Entertainment industry types love to project themselves into glamorized professions which are ‘just like what we do’ (only really not). Hence Argo. Hence Now You See Me. I know the likely next heist movie that we’re going to see, but I’m not going to say, as I will be keeping that as a script in development for myself to vend.
Now You See Me as metaphor for film-making:
Our protagonists, the four horsemen, are a bunch of starving artists hoping to make millions of dollars and get away, all in the course of a single year. Separately, they are all struggling and failing. As a team, they’re an unstoppable crew. Let’s examine the protagonists:
Danny Atlas is the director. He’s obsessive, controlling, and his work seems to be mainly about manipulating the perspective and focus of others. He’s arrogant and apparently the leader of the group.
Merrit McKinney is the writer. He has an eye for emotion and dialogue, he’s less glamorous, and most importantly, he controls what other people do. His specialty on the crew is to anticipate how people behave and to exploit psychology. It’s a very cynical take on the writer’s role.
Henley Reeves is the actor/glamour. She’s not just the eye candy- she’s the MC and the narrator. She leads the audience at the shows. She is the one you want to watch. She used to work for Danny Atlas, they have a love/hate relationship, and a rivalry- much as breakout stars carry a certain combined resentment and dependency upon the directors that helped them to become A-list stars.
Jack Wilder is the stunts/effects. He’s the action component of the action film, breaking locks, flipping cars, doing the fight scenes. When the other three more cerebral horsemen are stymied, here comes Jack, youngest and hungriest of the bunch, to break open doors and windows. Just like modern spectacle is used to break an impasse or doldrum of dramatic pacing.
Dylan Rhodes is the producer. Like a producer, he is largely ‘off the set’. He facilitates the operations of the Four Horsemen in performing their heists, which are the different stages
Best of all, it’s even the classic protagonist pentagram: The Chick (Henley), the Big Guy (Wilder), the Smart Guy (Merritt), the Lancer (Atlas), and the Leader (Rhodes).
They must overcome three antagonists as they conduct three heists.
Credit Republicain, the first heist, is the seed money. These are the initial project backers that the producer seeks out before soliciting the studio money. Like those initial backers, they tend to be anonymous, foreign, and focused purely on the spreadsheets.
Arthur Tressler is the studio executive. He thinks that he’s on to the con, and that’s he’s going to make a lot of money. Initially, we are led to believe that he is a part of the Horsemen team, but we come to understand that tricking him into financing them was just the first part of their operation. The second act is taking the studio’s money.
Thaddeus Bradley is the critics/press. He’s somebody smart enough to know what’s going on, but not talented enough to do it himself. He works as a debunker, showing people how the tricks are done. As portrayed, he’s a cynical, heartless vulture, not caring what he destroys, only enjoying the fame and money he derives from the takedown. It’s indicative of this film’s priorities that this is the character that is punished most, despite not having performed any actual crime.
Cowan is the distributor chains. He’s the dragon guarding the real money (the box office take). He has no time for bullshit, he’s abrasive to everyone, but he’s quickly distracted by a large crowd. An unplanned block party (aka a surprise hit film) causes him to drop what he’s doing to take part, allowing the crew to carry out their big heist.
Finally, the five horsemen run away into the night with hundreds of millions of dollars. And the under-spoken producer gets the girl, the lovely Audience, as manifested by Alma Dray. In her final line, she says that she doesn’t care about endings. Thus, by masquerading as an aggressive idiot to the antagonists, while facilitating the talent, the producer has enabled his bohemian crew to make off with the big score. The holes in the plot, the resolution, these do not matter; what matters is, did you like the bubbles and the flashes we gave to you mooks?
On another level, it’s even more cynical. The message of the film is that if you’re smart enough, you’re entitled to get away with it. That’s a recurrent idea of heist films, but it’s a bit more odious here because of the illuminati symbology (more on that in a later crazier essay); It’s one thing to go after doubters and cynics with a movie; it’s more detestable and hypocritical to make a movie where you both deplore the critics casting doubt on you and the believers whose money you are taking.
So I can enjoy the film and recommend it as adequate summer popcorn, but at the same time this films serves as damning indicator of the lowest common denominator philosophy of the modern business.