Now You See Me is a bit of an oddity. It’s a movie about magic that’s not really about magic; it’s a heist movie where we never see the heists being planned. These days I’m always on the lookout for something unique, whether it’s a story, a character, a film style, a setting, or anything else. Now You See Me fits the bill, on several levels, and even if it’s not exceptionally deep it’s a lot of fun and a hell of a ride.
Now You See Me follows four struggling magicians as they team up to create a never-before-seen act. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) spends his dazzling his audience, challenging perspectives by making a chosen card appear on the side of a building (and scoring hookups with girls in the process). Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) offers up thrills to a screaming crowd while she attempts to escape while chained inside a water tank before a school of piranhas can attack her. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, James Franco’s little brother) works on the street, challenging people to figure out how he deceives them and picking their pockets when they do. And Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson) uses his powers as a mentalist to reveal people’s secrets through hypnosis and observation, and then extort them to keep their secrets quiet.
These four illusionists all receive a tarot card with an address on the back, and they all meet at an apartment, recruited by a mysterious figure. A year later they have a headlining magic show as the “Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas, with a wealthy benefactor (Michael Caine). For the final act of their show, they choose at random a man from the audience, teleport the man to his personal bank, steal 3 million Euros from the bank, and rain that cash down upon the crowd as a gift. It’s a neat trick, particularly popular with the now slightly richer crowd, except that the man’s bank really was robbed at that moment, and the FBI wants to know how. Enter Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), a disgruntled agent assigned to solve the mystery along with an agent from Interpol (Melanie Laurent).
Their investigation leads them to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician who now makes a living with internet videos that explain how the illusionists accomplish their feats. He makes millions of dollars by destroying the mystery, and ruining the careers of magicians in the process. Bradley immediately shows Rhodes (and us) exactly how the money was stolen and how the trick was accomplished, and that is where Now You See Me begins to show its uniqueness. Where movies like The Prestige or The Illusionist string out their plot on the “how” of magic, Now You See Me gets that out of the way at the start. Oh sure, there are mysteries in the story, such as who the man is behind the Four Horsemen, but when the “how” is taken care of early on, it allows us to focus on the “why” and on what will happen next.
It’s a clever storytelling device, and it gives the film a different feel than most others these days. As the Horsemen stage more elaborate tricks and their fame grows, the excitement of the film also grows. At each show the crowd walks away with money, and the questions about the Horsemen’s motivation become more complex. Now You See Me is a bit of a maze, with conflicting loyalties, double crosses, mysterious organizations and surprises. The plot works, and works well, though I don’t know how well it would hold up on repeat viewings.
Part of what makes it so successful is the film’s style. The stellar cast all bring a level of wit to the one-liners that would have been lacking had the filmmakers made different choices with their actors. Harrelson and Eisenberg are especially good, each alternating between charming and arrogant with ease. Ruffalo has the most to do of anyone in the cast, and he shines here as a man perpetually one step behind. French director Louis Leterrier keeps the film moving at a good pace, bringing the audience along for the ride both as spectators and accomplices. With the characters motivations so murky it’s easy to root both for the FBI to apprehend the thieves and for the Horsemen to pull off another Robin Hood-style trick.
That, perhaps, is Now You See Me’s great feat. It gives us an equal joy both in the illusion and the deconstruction of the illusion. In that way, it actually has a lot in common with Oz the Great and Powerful, though without that film’s symbolism. I was especially happy that the film’s trailers gave so little away, because there’s a great joy in watching everything unfold. If I have one criticism, it’s that the characters don’t get much in the way of development, but that’s largely the point. Now You See Me is all about the show. And while the movie may not end with stolen money raining from the ceiling (at least, not in my theater), it’s still quite the trick.