Magic. Now there’s a subject that, over the years, hasn’t gotten a great deal of cinematic attention. Reason being, one surmises, that magic acts need the immediacy of live (or at least taped live) performance to preserve their thrill… and if we’re being honest here, most of them don’t have that much thrill to preserve in the first place. So wouldn’t you know it, after humming along for so many years all but magic-free, in 2006, Hollywood not only coughs up two magic-themed movies within weeks of each other but two turn-of-the-century Europe magic-themed movies. (Now that’s a Smackdown!)
The first was Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, which performed the astounding trick of disappearing almost entirely from my memory. Actually, more likely what happened is that it was wiped from memory the following month by The Prestige, a fascinating and one-of-a-kind mixture of historical drama, mystery, romance and sci-fi, directed by Christopher Nolan (and liberally co-adapted with his brother Jonathan from an award-winning Christopher Priest novel), apparently as his version of a vacation between Batman movies. And now, seven years later, we get the first challenger to its King of the Magic Movies crown (and no, Magic Mike doesn’t count) in the form of Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me. Will it pull a disappearing act of its own, or can the maker of two Transporter movies actually saw The Prestige in half? The curtain rises…
A diverse quartet of talented amateur magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson) are brought together via ominous, anonymous invitations. A year later, they are performing a sold-out show together in Las Vegas, during which they proceed to randomly select a volunteer from the audience to assist them in… robbing a bank. In France. And then giving all the money to the audience. How did they pull it off?
Assigned to the case is rumpled, irritable FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who is teamed up with a sultry French Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent), much to his dismay (for reasons that are never clear). His investigation leads him to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, in the third of the approximately seven hundred movies he’s in this month), a James Randi-like magic-exposer, who shows him how the whole trick worked. What’s their agenda? Who’s the mysterious figure directing them? What will they pull off next, and how can they be stopped? And how can an enormous Transporter-like car chase be squeezed into all this? You won’t get the answers until the very end… and maybe not even then.
In Victorian-era London, a dangerous magic trick goes very wrong, leaving the performer, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), drowned to death in a water chamber, and fellow magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) wrongly accused of causing it. Borden is prosecuted and found guilty, and as he sits in prison awaiting execution, flashbacks reveal the turbulent backstory of his relationship with Angier:
Years earlier, Borden may or may not have accidentally caused the death of Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) during a water chamber trick that the two men were assisting. After they both go on to embark on magic careers of their own, Angier’s hatred of Borden is compounded by his jealousy of his rival’s masterpiece trick, “The Transported Man.” His obsession with learning the trick inspires him to send his assistant and romantic partner Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, credible as a Brit) to infiltrate Borden’s lair, but Olivia betrays Angier and falls for Borden herself.
In desperation, Angier tracks down the legendary, reclusive Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, beautifully cast) and hires him to design a similar and even more impressive trick. That’s when things get really strange.
Both films begin promisingly and daringly. The Prestige disorients us early on, throwing us right into the middle of its convoluted, non-chronological story by way of surreal imagery (a field full of top hats?) and an unexplained framing device, with the invaluable Michael Caine (who also turns up in Now You See Me) explaining the structure of every great magic trick, as well as the title. NYSM deftly introduces its four main magicians by cross-cutting between each of them as they work their… well, you know. So in both cases, we’re instantly intrigued about what sort of journey we’re going on and how things all tie together. Unfortunately, where Prestige generously pays off your patience and careful attention, NYSM punishes you for it, with each scene topping the previous one for downright confusion and sheer silliness.
Both movies also have endings that pull the rug out from under you and force you to rethink everything that came before. The simple litmus test for whether such an ending works is whether or not it makes you want to see the movie a second time (The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects being the ultimate success stories). In the case of The Prestige, the answer is a resounding yes, with additional viewings proving amply rewarding as you spot the clues and planted seeds all along the way. Now You See Me, on the other hand, left me not only not wanting to see it a second time, but angry I’d seen it even once. Not that it hadn’t lost me long before then, but its final twist makes absolutely no sense and feels suspiciously like the arbitrary result of a lot of rewriting and reshoots.
How it all went so wrong is anyone’s guess, but I suspect a once-intriguing and cerebral script (credited to Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt) was poorly matched with a most un-cerebral director in Leterrier who, as usual, sacrifices story and characters for spectacle. He utterly wastes his stellar cast, with the four engaging leads spending most of their screen time on-stage, performing their act, their characters and backstories rendered completely irrelevant (e.g., we learn that Fisher formerly assisted Eisenberg… and it never comes up again). The usually reliable Ruffalo has never been worse, and Freeman and Caine just look embarrassed by it all. Yes, the movie is slick and fast-paced, but it’s completely hollow and ultimately, infuriatingly baffling. When the (presumed) villain finally gets his comeuppance, it’s not merely that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t even know what made him the villain. One could quibble with some of the reveals in Prestige as well, but at the very least, they played fair and answered all the story’s questions; the big reveals at the end of NYSM raise more questions than they answer, chief among them: WTF?
The Prestige, by contrast, is a master-class in screenwriting and directing, with Nolan doing arguably the best work of his career, clearly in complete control of his material. It’s a unique blend of seemingly disparate genres that miraculously all work together; the plot is endlessly clever and packed with genuine surprises; the production design authentically, sumptuously recreates the period; the dialogue is refreshingly literate; the various intertwining romances, alliances and obsessions are compelling and believable; and the large ensemble cast (which also features the always-welcome Rebecca Hall and Andy Serkis) is at the top of its game, with Jackman and Bale playing impressively against type. The film was a major box office disappointment, partly due to The Illusionist beating it to theaters, but mostly due to how difficult it is to categorize or even describe without spoiling. Fortunately, Nolan’s gargantuan success with the Batman franchise have enabled it to slowly gather a more worthy reputation on home video: It’s currently #67 on the IMDb top 250.
The Prestige was made by adults for adults. Now You See Me is made by idiots and for nobody who actually cares about things like story logic and coherence and actors being well utilized. Its sleight of hand feels sleight, offhand. There’s simply not much of a contest here: The Prestige works beautifully, not only as a movie but as a magic trick itself; Now You See Me simply wants to trick you out of your money. Here’s hoping it just magically disappears.