Tricked again

Magic-heist flick fails to live up to its billing

Caution: Script is very flammable.

Caution: Script is very flammable.

Now You See Me
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman and Isla Fisher. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 2.0

The title is a tease, and a not very clever one at that. It seems apt enough at first, what with a story involving magicians, high-stakes sleight-of-hand, bank robbery as Vegas-style entertainment, and assorted now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t shenanigans.

Publicity for Now You See Me makes much of the bank-robbing-magicians angle, but that’s really only the most conspicuous hook in a gratuitously convoluted (and ultimately fatuous) plot.

The story does have a quartet of mostly young magicians pulling off a series of spectacular escapades, and those tricks and capers provide the occasion for some big but not particularly impressive scenes. But much of the rest of the film is a rather whimsical war of attrition among increasingly absurd plot points involving a half-dozen other characters.

The rambunctious quartet of magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) are bankrolled by a billionaire mogul, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and closely followed by a mysterious debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). And when bank robberies become an issue, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and a Frenchwoman from INTERPOL (Mélanie Laurent) take center stage as well.

It’s an appealing cast, but the script (written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt) doesn’t give them much to do apart from being amusing placeholders in the picture’s shell-game of a plot. Freeman, Caine and Harrelson do brief re-runs of some of their respective familiar moves. Fisher is all formulaic charm and Franco seems merely generic.

Eisenberg’s quiet success in maintaining a comic tone with his character’s contrarian arrogance may be the film’s lone glimmer of acting brilliance. Ruffalo and Laurent have the film’s closest approximation of real character parts, but neither gets to bring much spark to the film’s half-hearted gestures at odd-couple romance and police-story parody.

Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans, and two Transporter films) seems ill-suited to a film that presumes to combine high-concept CGI action with whimsical indie-spirit spoofing. His direction of the action works nicely in concert with the cutting-room sleight-of-hand of editors Robert Leighton and Vincent Tabaillon, but with actors and characterization he’s little more than an assembly-line traffic cop.

One of the mottoes of the story’s illusionist/magicians is: “The closer you look, the less you see.” That, of course, applies to the film itself, except that in this case, even if you don’t look too closely, there’s not much magic in Now You See Me.