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Non-Review Review: Now You See Me

Now You See Me hinges on its final twist. How you react to that twist will define what you think of the movie. Cynics would argue that it’s a rather trite and cliché way of wrapping up a generic mystery with flash distracting from substance, with director Louis Leterrier frantically trying (and failing) to paper over the ever-widening cracks in narrative logics. Others will forgive it as theatrical excess, acknowledging that – though crucial – the denouement isn’t all that is worth appreciating in a magic trick. True magic is an artform, a narrative worth appreciating for technique and wit as much as to grasp the final turn.

The last act might let it down a bit (quite a bit), but Now You See Me spends most of its runtime as an enjoyable romp watching charming people engage in amusing set pieces. There’s a showmanship to it, an energy and flair. Leterrier often feels like he’s cobbling the film together as it threatens to rocket away from him, but there a pulpy energy that manages to hold the house of cards together until the last possible moment.

Lighting up the room...

Lighting up the room…

To be fair, the problems with the last act aren’t exclusively related to the gigantic plot twist. (By the way, it’s not a spoiler to suggest there’s a plot twist in a movie about magic. It’d be more of a spoiler to tell you there wasn’t.) The twist makes no logical sense, but Now You Me had firmly spiralled away from “logical” a long time ago. I’d argue the final plot twist works if only because it’s completely illogical and absurd. The film seems to stop trying to make sense, stop trying to exist in a world close to our own reality and turns into a convoluted narrative puzzle where the right answer is only the right answer because it makes a good twist.

I can forgive that big revelation, even though I suspect many won’t. The problem, however, is the way that the movie reacts to the twist. It isn’t understated. It’s declared in the most flamboyant manner possible, trumpeted with bright lights and several scenes reiterating the information in case the audience isn’t smart enough to keep up. If you have to spend three scenes explaining the reveal, that’s two scenes too many.

Where the Ruffalo roam...

Where the Ruffalo roam…

More than that, the final act seems unwilling to completely embrace the idea of theatricality and misdirection necessary for a trick like this to work. Magic and mysticism are co-mingled throughout the film, and the penultimate scene tries to have the best of both worlds, trying to turn “magic” into something suitably tangible and material, when it’s really anything but. After all, the best part of a magic trick is trying to work it out for yourself. Now You See Me tries too hard to explain itself, and it robs the narrative of a lot of its charm.

And yet, despite these significant flaw, Now You See Me is great fun. It rockets along under its own power, gleefully aware that it’s probably not going to make any sense. Indeed, one of the reasons I don’t mind the final reveal is because the movie is rather up-front with its audience. It is going to cheat. You simply have to try to catch it. Early on, veteran magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley argues that the magician will point the audience in the wrong direction. Now You See Me doesn’t so much point as flail energetically.

"Don't worry, I saw Magneto do this..."

“Don’t worry, I saw Magneto do this…”

If you can roll with it, Now You See Me feels like a fun throwback to classic heist movies, with cooks keen on proving their superiority to the cops chasing them. Every character in the film exists as a red herring. Why does that casino owner played by Michael Caine get so much attention? Isn’t it a bit weird that Interpol just happens to send a beautiful French agent who has an interest in magic? Why is Morgan Freeman so bitter about claims he could never make it as a magician?

A huge appeal of Now You See Me is the energetic cast who make the most of underwritten roles. Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent make for a fairly bland guy/girl law enforcement couple. Laurent always needs more work, and I would watch a police procedural featuring the pair solving magic-related crimes for a living. Caine and Freeman are under-used, but play well with the material they’re given. Jesse Eisenberg exudes arrogance as the ring-leader (or is he?) of the gang of magician-theives, while Woody Harrelson has a great deal of fun as a mentalist. Isla Fisher and Dave Franco aren’t given enough to do, but add to a solid ensemble.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

Leterrier realises that movies have a very clear advantage over stage magic. Magicians can only hope that the can direct your attention where they want it. With a movie, Leterrier can force the audience to see whatever he wants them to see. To be fair, there are some lovely little touches that do reward sharp-eyed viewers, but Leterrier keeps the camera looping a swooping to keep his viewers off balance.

Eventually Now You See Me becomes just as loopy and wild as Leterrier’s camera work, firmly disengaging any anchor tethering it towards reality. Our magicians go from reasonably credible performers to out-and-out supervillains. (There’s one stunt sequence involving a car chase which strains even the film’s already loose suspension of disbelief.) Then again, those looking for the movie to make sense are probably barking up the wrong tree. Instead, Now You See Me is probably best appreciated as a high-energy parlour trick.

What's on the cards?

What’s on the cards?

After all, it all falls apart if you think about it too long. When Bradley offers an explanation for the group’s heists, those schemes rely on contrivance and stupidity as much as wit and skill. There are a million different reasons why these schemes could never work, but that’s missing the point. Now You See Me asks you to accept that they can. It’s ridiculous, but no more or less so than any car chase in any major film over the past ten years.

Besides, when it works, it works. One of the most energetic sequences of the film can be best described as “magic fight!” in a small New York apartment. It’s a delightfully fun sequence which makes absolutely no sense when you consider how the laws of physics work, but it is staged efficiently enough that you accept it. Leterrier’s cutting and editing becomes its own magic trick, allowing characters to suddenly change position and orientation with little or no warning.

Going up in smoke...

Going up in smoke…

That said, I was a bit disappointed with the abundance of CGI used. It’s an arbitrary distinction, I suppose, given how impossible all these set pieces are, but Now You See Me would generate stronger suspension of disbelief without recourse to conspicuous computer-generated augmentation. There’s an absurdity to all the life-action stunts, but little touches like using real curtains or sheets might add a great sense of tangibility to the whole thing.

The wheels occasionally come off the script, but that’s part of the charm. There’s a sense that the movie could have been streamlined a bit. There’s this weird “magicians as Robin Hood” theme which runs through the film that never quite works, if only because we never buy that our four rogue magicians could be that selfless. (They all seem like self-interested jerks, which is part of the fun.) Similarly, there’s a whole host of stuff about a secret society that would have been best left on the cutting room floor, or at least left as red herring, rather than something that goes… somewhere that’s a little on-the-nose and more than slightly clunky.

A tricky customer...

A tricky customer…

Still, I enjoyed Now You See Me, even if I’ll accept that the final twist could easily be a deal-breaker. While Now You See Me might forget a little bit of the mystery of magic, it has the perfect sense of style and charm. It’s a spectacle, ungrounded in reality and just a little bit magic.

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4 Responses

  1. why did they frame Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie?

    • As far as I understand it, Morgan Freeman produced an exposé that undermined the old magician and led him to bury himself in a safe at the bottom of the river. It’s revenge.

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