I've always been slightly puzzled when people talk about the magic of cinema. Sure, cinema can amaze and enthral - Orson Welles called it a ribbon of dreams -, but, unlike magic, it needs to make sense. However much The Prestige went on about the final act, the denouement, being the most important, it only works if it feels like what's preceded has built up to it. Even the most experimental, arthouse film has to make sense on an abstract level. One plus one may not always equal three, but, if it doesn't, the film should at least clue you in on the equation.
That's why Now You See Me doesn't work.
You could almost forgive the underdone characterisation - Jesse Eisenberg plays a sardonic, anti-social wunderkind, always convinced he's the smartest guy in the room (think The Social Network without the dramatic purpose), Mark Ruffalo plays a dogged policeman -, if the film had only convinced in its purpose: to provide a seemingly unsolvable puzzle box that, at the end, resolves itself with perfect logic. Eisenberg's Daniel Atlas repeatedly promises that the more you think you see, the easier it'll be to fool you, but the truth is there's nothing underneath the dazzle.
Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco (James' younger brother) play a quartet of magicians known as The Four Horsemen. Brought together by a mysterious benefactor, they proceed, after much preparation, to carry out, a series of heists disguised as magic tricks. Fisher is bubbly, Franco is callow, Woody Harrelson is... Woody Harrelson. Michael Caine appears as their wealthy patron, Arthur Tressler, who, unbeknownst to him, is in for a surprise of his own, while Morgan Freeman provides retrospective exposition as a wry antagonistic "disillusionist".
As I noted earlier, these are all roles we've seen them play before, and, though it bills itself as more of an Ocean's 11 meets The Brother's Bloom, but, unlike either of those films, Now You See Me stacks the deck in its favor. If you pay close attention (despite Atlas' repeated mantra), it's possible to figure out the tricks as they're occurring, though the film hopes you wont. Tellingly, it never reveals the mechanism behind certain magical moments - such as Fisher's floating in a bubble above a Las Vegas stage - because they contradict the implicit premise that all of this is possible.
For all its prestidigitation, the film has to resort to cheap tricks: Harrelson's McKinney is a hypnotist and a mentalist, which essentially reduces the supporting cast to pawns. An introductory scene in which Harrelson blackmails a tourist for $200 in return for making his hypnotised wife forget about the affair she's just discovered he's having is cute, but, again, Now You See Me is less clever than it thinks it is (its very clever clever for a film that is, in fact, just, well, clever). Furthermore, its superficiality means its supposed social message ultimately falls flat.
You may ponder how they did it when the team redistribute a rich bastard's millions amongst the audience he fleeced, but ultimately the secret lies in the literal interpretation of a half-told anecdote. One character is not who they seem, but each of the characters is so thin they fold up under observation - Melanie Laurent's French Interpol agent, Alma Dray's, sole defining features are that she's a) French, b) a woman, and c) a weak if ostensible love interest for Ruffalo's cop. Again, this wouldn't be so jarring if the film didn't contradict it's own premise.
There's a certain irony that the principles of Now You See Me claim challenging a corrupt system when the film is itself such a cheat. Just as Atlas and Co. only carry out their self-styled Robin Hood act for their own selfish aims (they want to be members of an elite magicians club), script writers Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted..., Charlie's Angels), Boaz Yakin (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Safe) and Edward Ricourt break the rules of satisfying twist ending. As heavily foreshadowed as the idea of a "twist" is, it comes out of nowhere and, as such, is hard to care about.
That's where I think the fundamental disconnect between cinema and magic lies. In cinema, even in the case of films like The Sixth Sense, the twist needs to be built into what's gone before, it needs to unfold organically. It's hard to imagine that Now You See Me will reward repeat viewings the same way because, simply put, there's nothing to spot, nothing up its sleeve. It's magic in that it comes from nowhere, less a revelation than an "a-ha!". Without giving you a chance to solve it, Now You See Me comes across as smug and self-satisfied, much like Eisenberg's "protagonist".
Verdict: Now You See Me is a frustrating failure of a film - all smoke and mirrors, obfuscatory and two-dimensional. Though stylish and supposedly fun, it leaves you feeling cheated, something that no good film (or magic trick) should ever do. You can't encourage audience members to use their brains then deny them the fruit of that faculty.There are lots of distractions, lots of abracadabra, but no crescendo, no alakazam. Louis Leterrier's direction is solid, but it can't redeem a concept this flawed. Now You See Me is built around an audacious conceit that just doesn't work, and, apart from which, there would be no other reason to recommend it. Given the lacklustre performance of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, maybe Hollywood should leave stage magic alone for a while. Now You See Me gets 4.5/10.