There are plenty of things not to like about Now You See Me (2013), which is stylistic for the sake of being stylistic, light on characterization and heavy on import. But there’s a compelling reason to ignore all those things: If you do so, you’ll have a good time at the movies, which is what Now You See Me is about anyway—movie magic. This movie, which is about magicians who become high-stake bank robbers and folk heroes, puts itself out there, as all magicians do, to be mocked and derided. For about 75% of its running time, I was prepared to do just that, but then it won me over, not because it got better necessarily, but because it was so earnest that I threw my hands up and went with it and I’m glad I did.
The movie operates in the grand tradition of heist movies in which a number of stars are brought together to be the various cops and robbers and have obvious fun double-, triple- and quadruple-crossing one another. Four small-time magicians played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson are brought together in the movie’s prologue for mysterious reasons. A year later they are an aspiring act in Las Vegas called the Four Horsemen with the backing of a wealthy insurance kingpin (Michael Caine). In their first big show, they close by claiming they will rob a bank. They pull a man out of the audience and ask him which bank he uses; it’s in France. They place a helmet on the man’s head that will allegedly transport him to his bank’s vault. Soon the man has disappeared and before long, euros from the bank are raining from the sky in the Vegas theater. It’s a good illusion, made better by the fact that the money in France is actually missing. The foursome is brought in for questioning under the purview of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), but unless the Federal Bureau of Investigation is willing to admit that it believes in magic, they can’t keep them. There’s no hard evidence they had anything to do with the heist, and Rhodes begrudgingly lets them go but warns them they will be watched.
The Four Horsemen, now a sensation, have a sold-out show in New Orleans that results in their insurance benefactor being fleeced of nearly $150 million dollars that winds up mysteriously distributed into the personal bank accounts of everyone in attendance at the show. From there the magicians are on the run from the FBI, an Interpol agent played by Mélanie Laurent and a TV host played by Morgan Freeman, whose program deals with the debunking of magicians. The different factions trade positions being any number of steps ahead or behind each other until all the secrets are revealed.
The movie is pretty well set up and paid off, which is a nod more to the story structure than the script itself. The movie gives us a conduit in the person of agent Rhodes, who is learning the art of magic as we do; it also has an expert in Morgan Freeman’s character, who can explain things to Rhodes (and us) while being separate from the magicians Rhodes is after. Some of the pleasure comes from watching the Horsemen pull off their stunts, but most of it comes from having them explained. The explanations are mainly satisfactory, at least good enough not to insult us, although some of the technology the group uses doesn’t exist and all the material they use would leave a record and require funds and space the movie doesn’t explain, but these are minor things; further, while the New Orleans trick was impressive, I don’t think the Feds let people keep money that has been stolen and gifted to you. Most important, as the movie draws to a close, I had no idea where it was going. Of course, producing an unexpected outcome is not what’s hard; the trick is fooling us while maintaining story logic. The movie did its groundwork by training the audience to trust nothing, but a good twist requires more than the unexpected; it must be an unforeseen revelation that is also narratively satisfying. Now You See Me pulls it off.
Where the script and the movie fail is in the finer points. While the experience is exhilarating in the moment, it’s temporary because the movie never penetrates deeper than its slick facade. See, the Four Horsemen all have names and individual skills, but I decided not to list them because they are irrelevant; they never become characters, just people doing things. Since it’s ludicrous anyway to think that only four people could do all the amazing things the Horsemen do, the movie would have been better served if there were just one magician who we could get to know and try to understand. And it isn’t because they are magicians that they remain mysterious; plenty of movies like Catch Me If You Can (2002) or The Sting (1973) have protagonists who are both untrustworthy and fully realized characters, and the Ocean’s Eleven movies find a way to give the myriad characters distinct personalities. The Four Horsemen are just poorly written. The cops are a little better, but mainly the characters say and do things not out of any motivation as humans but as actors in the plot, to keep the train moving toward the conclusion, which subsequently suffers.
Further, the filmmaking by director Louis Leterrier is too frenetic, with a nonstop camera capturing the action from extreme angles at all times. The energy is admirable (the editing is paced within an inch of its life), but it doesn’t add anything; it’s just busy noise. Is that appropriate for a movie about the art of deception? Perhaps, but it’s also distracting in a movie in which the onus is on the audience to pay attention.
Ultimately, however, I did pay attention and I’m happy I did. The movie’s greatest strength is its confidence; it believes in all that it’s doing, and it’s just competent enough for you to buy it too. Now You See Me isn’t a perfect film; in fact, it has more problems than any number of more accomplished but less entertaining movies. But there’s some poetry in it, though I doubt it’s intentional. If the requirement of a good magic trick is a willing suspension of disbelief, then the requirement for enjoying Now You See Me is the willing suspension of the strictest scrutiny. There’s more than enough here to reward that.