By Benji Tunnell
JOPLIN, Mo. —
This past weekend saw the opening of a movie whose success fully depended on its ability to present a complicated illusion; to distract the viewer from reality so that it could unfold its world. "After Earth" failed in its attempts to hide M. Night Shyamalan's connection to the film, and thus it tanked.
But there was another illusion-based film that opened against the Will Smith dud, and it did so in a far more successful manner.
"Now You See Me" is the story of a group of solo magicians gathered together by a mysterious and unseen entity to create a powerhouse act that will change the world. During its first performance in Las Vegas, the group (Jesse Eisenberg as Daniel, Woody Harrelson as Merritt, Isla Fisher as Henley and Dave Franco as Jack Wilder) brings an audience member on stage and then seemingly transports him to his bank in Paris, France, where he helps the group steal the contents of its vault, spraying audience members in Vegas with the cash.
This act attracts the attention of Interpol, the FBI and a professional magician debunker named Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman) who is intent on exposing their tricks. This sets up a tense journey through the next two shows, each more outlandish than the first.
The movie holds together pretty well throughout. Though it does ask for some leaps of faith from the audience at various points, it rewards these stretches. If anything, the ending is both a little telegraphed and not quite earned, but it is enough that it should satisfy those looking for a twist.
The cast is solid. Harrelson has enjoyed a career resurgence, and he once again appears to have chosen his role for the sheer fun of the character. Playing a mentalist/con man, Merritt once had fame and lost it because of poor business decisions, but his skills at reading people have made him too strong to keep down.
Eisenberg, reunited with his "Zombieland" cohort in Harrelson, plays a variation on many of the other characters we've seen him as, but again is likable, and possibly a little smarmier than usual, as Daniel. As the de facto face of the group, Daniel gets to carry the bulk of the group's performances, and Eisenberg does it smoothly.
I'd lost track of Fisher long ago, but with her role here and in the new season of "Arrested Development," she is doing her best to remind us of why I liked her so much in "Wedding Crashers." Playing the strong female in a group of boys, she imbues her character with enough strength to make her the most likable of the group.
Franco is probably the weakest of the main crew. Playing a slightly more likable version of his role in "21 Jump Street" and, for that matter, "Scrubs," he comes across as a kind of grating frat boy (or am I being redundant?). Much like Eisenberg, he seems lacking in range, but hasn't found the way to play up likability as well as his costar.
The group is complemented by the supporting cast. Freeman has gotten to the point where his roles have little variation on the wise but calm elder, and this is yet another in that mold. But he does it well and has earned the right after so many years.
Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent play the FBI and Interpol agents, respectively, and aside from a tacked-on love story that doesn't quite convince, the two have strong interplay. Laurent made her mark stateside in "Inglorious Basterds," and although this won't elevate her any further, it does show that she can handle her own against English-speaking actors.
Ruffalo continues to show acting strength that he never seems to get credit for. It's interesting to see him play the flip side of his "Brothers Bloom" role, and he certainly makes the most of what he is given.
Adding to the fun of the film are the illusions themselves. Though made more impressive with the benefit of technology and special effects, the seeds of the ideas are still executed nicely, and it allows for a bit of wonder, regardless of the digital trickery involved. The script complements the action and allows for a satisfying and fun film.
"Now You See Me" is an anomaly in summer movies -- a film that asks for attention to be paid throughout. Certain liberties are taken, and logic may not work throughout, but more care seems to have been put into this movie than most of what is thrown out during these hotter months. It manages to be intelligent, entertaining and a lot of fun.