Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Of Films: Now You See Me (2013)

Magic is about misdirection. Unfortunately, so is Now You See Me. On the surface, this is a heist film in which the ultra-clever heist gets carried out by a group of impressive young stage magicians. The marketing even suggested that the audience would get a chance to guess how they do it. But nothing about this film is real. To the contrary, it presents disjointed and nonsensical highlights while trying to make you believe you’re seeing a workable heist film. Ultimately, the film is stylish enough to be enjoyable, but it’s very shallow with some major flaws.
The Plot
Now You See Me starts with four talented street magicians getting invited by an unknown benefactor to perform in Vegas as “The Four Horsemen.” These are: the arrogant illusionist Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Ilsa Fisher), and pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).
To end their first show, they declare that they will rob a bank. To pull off this trick, they invite a French citizen on stage. This man is an account holder in the Credit Republicain de Paris bank, and he appears to be teleported to Paris, where he turns on a huge vacuum which pulls the money out of the bank’s vault and spews it out over the Vegas audience. Everyone is amazed, but the FBI is not amused. When the FBI discovers that the bank really was robbed, they send Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Melanie Laurent to investigate.
From there, the film becomes a game of cat and mouse as the outmatched FBI agents chase their own tails while trying to catch the magicians, who continue to up the ante. Their next trick, for example, involves robbing the show’s sponsor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), an insurance company magnate who wrongfully denied thousands of claims in the city in which they perform the trick. Naturally, they drain his bank account while transferring his money to each of the people whose claims were wrongfully denied. He then hires Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes money revealing magicians’ tricks and debunking claims of magic, to pursue them.

Ultimately, the film finishes with a protracted chase scene in which the magicians rob a defense contractor while trying to evade Freeman, the FBI and the local police. The benefactor then reveals himself and his motives, and you won’t guess who it is because it makes no sense.
Smoke and Mirrors and Misdirection
This film functions by misdirection. On the surface, this film involves an ultra-clever heist perpetrated by a group of talented young stage magicians. They do this heist right before the eyes of the frustrated FBI and a talented debunker, and as they do, they keep the audience guessing what will happen next and what just happened. And if you shut off your brain, this heist will rival any other heist film for complexity, originality, and surprise.

But there’s a problem: the heist isn’t real. And I don't mean, this probably wouldn't work in real life. What I mean is that the film doesn't even pretend to show you a possible heist, it just shows you hints of heists and then tries to trick you into thinking you saw more.

To give you some examples, it doesn’t take long to realize that they would need to know too much information to pull off these tricks. How do they find everyone who got screwed by the insurance company and invite them to attend the second show? How do they learn the account numbers and passwords to each of those people's saving accounts? The film never tells you. Somehow they also get them all to use the same banking software on their phones, software that doesn’t exist and which impossibly gives you a real-time ticker on the amount of money in your account as if deposits were added in penny by penny. Then they need to find a way to get Caine’s bank to conduct a thousand wire transfers in real time, at their command to work with the stage show, late at night. Again, they never make any attempt to explain how this was done.
At the same time, they need to know if the guys who will chase them will run to the left or the right. They arrange traffic stunts that Hollywood’s best would struggle with on a closed set, only they do it on the open road during rush hour. They participate in heists they could not physically perform. Again, the details are never explained.

Even when they explain things, they don't explain them. Consider the bank robbery in Paris. It seems impossible. Then Freeman comes along and explains that they did it the day before, and they did it by replacing the real money with fake money so no one would notice. The film even shows you a flashback of these characters hovering around the bank in armored car uniforms. Ruffalo then asks how they made the fake money vanish. To this, Freeman responds “flash paper” and he causes some to burn up in his hand. Oh, now it all makes sense. Actually, it doesn’t. At no point is an explanation offered for where the fake money actually came from, how they got it into the bank, how they removed the good money and replaced it with the bad, how they got the good money to Vegas overnight, how they set off the flash paper, why no one noticed the residue, or any other part of how the heist would need to work. All you get is an assurance that it happened followed by the debunker declaring their actions explained and brilliant.
The whole film is like this. Throughout this film, you are given explanations for how things supposedly happened that only touch upon the highlights of what needed to happen, e.g. “oh, there were blanks in the gun,” but there is never any explanation for how they actually made this happen. And the few times there are suggestions, like seeing them dressed up as armored car drivers, only raises a million more questions. But each time, the cops or the debunker are there to smooth it over and tell you that this is indeed how it happened, now stop worrying about that! Meanwhile, the characters drone on heavy-handedly in a near narrative (it’s the narrative of the magic act superimposed on the rest of the action) about the nature of magic being about sleight of hand in such an authoritative way that it basically comes across as the film telling you to stop doubting the heist. This is the equivalent of having characters scream, “This is the real world! It’s not like we’re in a movie!”
This is an interesting way to make a heist film. On the one hand, I suspect that a good chunk of the audience won’t be using their brains as they watch the film, so they will feel like everything has been fully explained. But for people whose brains remain active while watching the film, this method becomes a problem. For them, the suspension of disbelieve just keeps getting harder and harder throughout, and ultimately you are left feeling like you are just watching a lie because the film never even tries to make any of it real. At that point, the question becomes whether the gloss and veneer of the heist is enough to overcome the realization that the whole thing is being pulled out of the writer’s rear end.

In many ways, that makes this film very much like Ocean’s Thirteen, which similarly abandoned believability for style. In Ocean’s Thirteen, that worked because they presented a world you wanted to embrace and characters with relationships you wanted to be part of. Here, the true fatal flaw is the casting.
Jesse Eisenberg is unpleasant. Here he’s smug and angry and you don’t like him. Woody Harrelson always plays a jerk, but he typically makes his character likeable by letting him take a beating, which lets him have an epiphany which brings the audience to his side. Here, his misbehavior is never punished and he gets to let his jerk side run unrepentant. Ruffalo is an ass politically, but can be likable on film. Only, here he comes across as angry and lifeless. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both play characters you aren’t supposed to like. The rest of the cast is non-existent. So what you’re left with is a deeply unlikable cast you can’t rally around. They never give you a grand look into the world of magic either. So you have little to latch onto.

All in all, this is an interesting but very shallow film. It would have served the film better to have actually presented a genuine heist scenario or more likable actors. Still, it’s probably worth seeing, if for nothing else but its potential. Just don't expect to be impressed if you pull back the veneer.

15 comments:

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the review, Andrew. The idea sounds interesting but they wasted it's potential.
Another style but no substance movie. Not that there's anything wrong with syle, but without substance it's shallow and the film doesn't live up to it's promises.

Koshcat said...

I saw this on a plane ride home. It passed the time. That's about all I can say.

tryanmax said...

I actually watched this twice (Redbox) because I thought, surely there must be something I missed. Nope. As you say, the ending makes zero sense. Upon watching the second time, I realized that the only way it could've made sense of it is if it had a Fight Club twist to it. But it didn't, so ?????

On Ocean's Thirteen, I feel that film had already earned our trust in the previous two installments. Not only was the world one we wanted to be in, but we had already been assured that these were insanely talented heistmen. The believability that the characters had earned in the first two rounds was projected onto the less plausible third script.

Conversely, the characters in Now You See Me tried earning that believability in the exposition. It doesn't work because 1) it's too brief, 2) it involves them being duped, and 3) the really important bit about them coming together is swept away with "One Year Later." There's another movie tucked away in that one year that is probably way better than the one we saw, but it never materialized. Poof!

ScottDS said...

I remember first reading about the film and loving the idea: a magic show covering up for a bank heist. Genius!

Then I saw the movie. You know the moment when I stopped taking it even slightly seriously? When one of the tricks involved sending Isla Fisher up in a bubble. Like a big soap bubble! And since we're watching a movie with editing and FX, it's obvious that none of the real-life magic tricks are real. They don't even try to ground any of it.

My friend was incredulous and asked me, "How do you know the bubble trick wouldn't work?!"

I asked him to test it and he shut up. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Ben! This absolutely had potential, but it just fell apart because it never felt the least bit believable.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's about all it turned into, sadly.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, It does feel that way, like there must have been something you missed. In fact, the whole film feels that way - like there is something missing they forgot to show you.

Great point about them earning it. You are right, the Ocean's 13 crew earned our belief over the first two films. So if they skip something, then we can overlook it. By comparison, nothing in this film is earned. With only the words "one year later" we're told to believe not only that these people have created the best act ever, but that we're supposed to love them, and that they are all happy with carrying on this criminal plot they know nothing about.

Then you get the tricks and many of them seem CGI, or you get something like hypnosis which really only works if you the "under" guy is in on it. Then you have a guy who charted out an entire life just to get revenge, but shows no moment where he learns these super skills he has.

You're just supposed to take it all on faith, and that doesn't work here because the film gives you no reason to take anything on faith.

djskit said...

I too watched this on the plane ride back, and I love a smart, technical movie and had high hopes for this one. As it progressed, I just started getting angry with dissappointment.

9 months later is it now making the rounds on cable and my reaction is the same. Just seeing the title of the movie pisses me off.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I had hopes for this, but boy did they phone this in.

I agree about the bubble. That screamed CGI. But even more, from the very beginning, it struck me that the film was doing things that couldn't happen or which needed an incredible explanation, but rather than explaining, they just assumed that "because they're magicians" was enough to refuse to explain anything.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I'm the same. I love smart heist films that require you to pay attention or think your way through what is happening. But this film only pretends to be like that. At no point does any of the "smart, technical" stuff work, and there's never any explanation offered for any of the not-credible stuff. So you're left feeling cheated.

djskit said...

Don't forget the mind blowing "twist" at the end caused me to question everything I saw up to that point.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, The "twist" was a total farce. It's one of those things that's just not credible. So somehow, this guy arranged his entire life to set this up? And he's running it without any control? Nonsense.

ScottDS said...

In other (better) movie news, I just watched The Lego Movie. It was a lot of fun and any kid will love it. The action is so frenetic at times, I wish they had just slowed things down - it's a beautiful-looking movie and there's a lot to take in. But I can forgive it. :-)

As a cynical and jaded adult with a job and bills to pay, it's nice to know they can still make movies that my inner 8-year old would watch on a constant loop.

Koshcat said...

Everything is awesome,

Scott just beware of the kracle.

Kit said...

So its "meh"?

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