2013’s summer movie season will likely go down as one of the biggest and be remembered for Iron Man 3‘s record-breaking box office, but there’s an unfortunate common theme developing here too. From Marvel’s film to Star Trek Into Darkness to the latest installment of the Fast & Furious franchise, this summer’s big studio releases appear to have given up even the pretense of intelligence in exchange for plain, dumb fun. That’s not a bad thing on it’s own, and to be clear, this isn’t an issue of believability as much as it is about shameless, lazy stupidity.
Louis Leterrier‘s new film, Now You See Me, gleefully jumps into the fray hoping to skate by on the same “dumb but fun” mentality, but while the three movies above featured spectacular action set-pieces and big stunts to distract from their half-assed scripts this one instead has… magic tricks?
Four magicians of varying stripes (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are wrangled together by a mysterious figure in a hoodie who passes on instructions that transforms them into the top magic act in Las Vegas. Collectively billed as The Four Horsemen the quartet proceed to cap off their performance with a live bank robbery resulting in millions in stolen Euros falling from the theater ceiling to the patrons below. The theft (along with the Horsemen’s smug attitudes) puts an ornery detective (Mark Ruffalo), a gorgeous Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) and an Amazing Randi-like debunker (Morgan Freeman) hot on their trail as they head to their next show, and the next crime, in New Orleans.
At its core this wants to be a grand heist movie along the likes of the Ocean’s Eleven films, The Italian Job and the two most recent Fast & Furious films. The main ingredients are all here including a solidly entertaining ensemble cast, slick production values and a series of heist-related set-pieces escalating in scope and scale, but there’s also quite a bit missing. The joy in all of these films is seeing how the tricks and heists are accomplished. Think the end of Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown Affair remake and the utter thrill you felt watching his plan unfold.
We get none of that here because instead of writing its way out of the Horsemen’s illusions with wit, smarts and ingenuity the film instead uses some magic of its own. CGI magic to be precise. Even before they get to their grand heists the quartet is doing magic tricks that aren’t even close to the realm of possibility and in fact are very often clearly visible CGI. No one’s saying they have to perform tricks the exact way actual magicians do, but don’t jump from a rooftop, burst into dollar bills and expect me to be impressed.
This complete disregard for the audience’s brains and expectations is bad enough on its own merits, but it becomes frustrating when paired with the makings of an otherwise fun and engaging lightweight thriller. Leterrier makes loosely enjoyable, casual films that continually look good and flow well. This is no exception, and he even manages a couple fine action sequences with a well choreographed apartment brawl and a car chase through the streets of NYC.
The cast, like the film’s attempts at magic, looks fantastic but falters in the execution. Most of the players here are simply making the motions with very little effort to be seen. It doesn’t help that the script offers nothing in the way of character background or development for the Horsemen leaving us instead with four smugly satisfied performers. Ruffalo and Laurent fare better as she’s always a focused delight and he finds some fun in the frustrations of always being one step behind their tricksters. Freeman and Michael Caine also got paid for their appearances here.
The less said about the third act the better, so I’ll only say this. The eventual reveal of the Horsemen’s mysterious benefactor is hilarious in its implications. Seriously, this person’s efforts and planning makes the Count of Monte Cristo look like a slacker by comparison.
Now You See Me looks good and offers some inevitable fun, but it’s the laziest kind of filmmaking. It’s all setup and very little payoff, leaving the only legitimate trick accomplished here the one where $12 disappears from your wallet.
The Upside: Likeable ensemble cast; slick production; some laughs; creates a sense of anticipation as to what will happen and how it will be explained
The Downside: Incredibly lazy; setups continually fail to impress when it comes time to explain; main quartet is way too smug; Dave Franco
On the Side: Here’s the core message of the film in YouTube video form.