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Slight Of Hand
on August 23, 2013
Magic is about suspending disbelief. It's the one big factor it shares with movies. But the kinds of illusions you see from the likes of Copperfield, Angel, and Penn & Teller have pretty obvious parameters. Here's a bullet with your initials fired from a gun and caught in the teeth of someone across the stage. Watch as these nails and swords pierce my flesh with no seeming damage. Solid Lucite box? I'll float in it. Ta da.
Movie magic requires a whole lot more to both earn and reward that suspension of disbelief. It takes interesting and believable characters. It takes entertaining and engaging storytelling. It takes a movie world that plays by some understandable and consistent ground rules. Without that, all you've got is spectacle. A lot of hocus with none of the follow-up pocus. If that makes any sense.
NOW YOU SEE ME is a story about four B-list magicians who are invited via mysterious cards to be a part of some kind of be-all, end-all magic trick. It might have something to do with a magician named Shrike who died during a botched trick long ago. It might have something to do with robbing millions of dollars in cash. It might even have something to do with a group called The Eye that is the supposed guardian of real, live, actual magic!
It's really not very clear. Ever. Like a magician with too much patter, the movie keeps trying to explain itself but is still so desperate to keep some of that magic that its explanations only go halfway. Most of them come from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man who has dedicated his life to debunking magicians. He keeps detailing how tricks are done, but he never really does fill in all the blanks. He can tell you how four magicians robbed a bank in Paris while standing on a stage in America, but he conveniently leaves out the part where they burst into wads of cash while jumping off a twenty story roof. The last third of the movie is glutted with this kind of heavy and inconsistent exposition, and it makes the film feel like it's not entirely comfortable with its subject matter.
Because there's so much going on, there is really very little time to get to know or even care about any of the characters. Our four magicians end up feeling more like props or set pieces, and in spite of their glitzy bravado and showmanship, they are about as hollow and fake as a mirrored box. The movie's emotional hook lies in Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), the FBI agent who is hell-bent on hunting them down. Unfortunately, he ends up being a one-note character as well, and the story takes him into a place that is supposed to be magical, but that ends up feeling like a really cheap trick, like the "got your nose" of the cinematic world.
The movie, in spite of all of this, is a helluva a lot of fun to look at, and there are some satisfying moments here and there (including an amazingly choreographed fight scene/car chase). No actor really stood out, but then again, none of them were glaringly bad, either. However, unlike a magic show where they take great pains to roll up the sleeves and denounce camera or light trickery, this flick -- both the way it's filmed and told -- just feels like a lot of smoke and mirrors and not much else. You might be able to suspend your disbelief for the film, but like the old trick with the floating woman, you'll probably need the help of some wires and wenches to keep it up there for the entire movie.