Sunday, June 2, 2013

Squalor: Now You See Me

Let's begin with a list of all the on-screen talent involved in the making of this film, shall we? In this magical, misdirected version of Ocean's 11 we have Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Laurent, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Mark Ruffalo. I'd put Dave Franco on there, too, but frankly, I'm not yet convinced of his skills beyond the title of 'brother of James'. Most of the others, though, are pretty established.  Like, say, to the point that we could probably compile a list of the things they're generally good at. Eisenberg plays a great fast-talking smart ass, Harrelson makes smarmy characters endearing, Freeman is the voice and the guide, Laurent allows a sophisticated touch of something just beneath the surface. With the exception of Fisher (whose talent is (questionably) a sort of squirrely physical comedy), Now You See Me relies on the general typecasting of its actors. If you want to see this assortment of actors doing the things they're known for doing together on stage, for one performance only, this is your movie.  If you're hoping all these actors will get a chance to actually make something of their characters? Well, it's like any trick, right? First you see something, then you don't.  In this case: first you see potential, then it just.. sort of... disappears.
Now You See Me is what happens when a good idea gets over-plotted, over-complicated, and over-cast.  There are too many characters involved in events that require too much explanation, and so very little happens that doesn't directly contribute to the events of the story. Of course, a heist film about magicians should be relatively frothy, and given a superficial glance, Now You See Me succeeds as a weightless entertainment. A ragtag group of street illusionists is gathered via Tarot card invite and assembled -with almost no explanation and a set of light-show blueprints- into a Vegas-style attraction. There's little point introducing you to the characters themselves, as we've established everyone here is essentially just a vessel, so let's just say we watch Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco step cheesily into the klieg lights as the Four Horsemen.  When the Four Horsemen wrap up their stint at the MGM Grand by 'magically' robbing a Parisian bank, they attract the attention of a rumpled FBI agent (Ruffalo), Interpol (Laurent) and a nosy professional mythbuster (Freeman). The cat and mouse game begins, the film keeps us in the dark as to which party is one step ahead, we work towards the end game and the inevitable 'prestige' twist.
I won't reveal how things play out, as Now You See Me is certainly watchable enough to warrant a cursory glance without spoilage. Instead, I'll jump to complaining about the film's flimsy construction. A fair amount of Now You See Me is centered on the backstage revealing of its varied mechanisms. While just enough magic is retained for us to suspend our disbelief, the story requires that we understand a fair amount of the technical misdirection just up the illusionist's sleeve. The problem with this is two-fold: first, the time it takes to do so overcomplicates and takes away from more interesting content, then, it forces us to read any unexplained too magical elements as unbelievable bullshit. Had the writers and directors drawn more influence from the ensemble work in Ocean's 11, they could have solved these initial issues by simply centering the film on the magicians themselves. When we hang with the thieves, when we see them bicker, practice, and run us through the heist/act, we're less likely to need a clunky aside.  This is where Now You See Me fails. Too much of the illusion is left on stage, and so are the magicians. Instead, the action of the film is centered on the law element. When the criminals aren't really villains and the agents aren't really straight heroes, the tension that might otherwise keep us in the chase is easily lost.
So, we know all the while we're watching some sort of elaborate charade. Everything feels like a setup, and the stakes seem lower than all the hubbub on screen suggests. Director Louis Leterrier, who has previously hinted at style on films like The Transporter or Clash of the Titans, here never bothers with anything that could tilt towards visually engaging. It's a blandly shot film with a daylight finish that lays everything too bare and makes the artifice too phony. Though I kinda liked Now You See Me while I was watching it, by the end I felt bored and a bit cheated. If the cheat came from the twists themselves, that would be alright, but it comes instead from simple absences. In trying to capture everything, Now You See Me that cuts out any real cunning or intrigue and implies, instead, that both the characters and the audience are simply present to be duped. The second the screen goes black, everything the film tries to pull off begins to unravel.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmmm. Always sad to hear someone didn't like the film you liked (a lot) and especially coming from you because you have such good taste. Ahh. But I don't know, I guess opinions are always different.

    I like the explanations though – I can see understand why you didn't like it so you're not simply bashing, so good post still!


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