The best part of Now You See Me is the first ten minutes. After that, it goes into a gradual decline. It becomes painfully apparent the filmmakers have no interest in coherent internal rules for their narrative, or a script built on character logic rather than flash. And while it doesn’t get all that bad by the end, the whole thing is about 70 percent attitude and 30 percent substance.
As for those first ten minutes, they introduce us to Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher), and Jack (Dave Franco), a motley crew of magicians, mentalists and tricksters plying their trade in random corners of the United States. Daniel is basically a variation on Eisenberg’s character from The Social Network, Fisher balances Henley’s chip on the shoulder with admirable pluck, Harrelson does a particularly good job portraying a keen intellect and perception hidden under various insecurities, and Franco is capable as the resident screwball. Each one gets an introductory scene performing their schtick, and the sequence builds to a swaggering crescendo of editing, snappy dialogue, music, and a quartet of actors clearly having a ball.
All four are given a card by a hooded stranger that directs them to an abandoned flat in New York City. There they discover some very flashily presented plans for a set of magic shows to end all magic shows. A year later they resurface in Las Vegas, now known as “the Four Horsemen,” and ready to put their plan into action.
That, as it turns out, involves using their magic performances as covers for heists. There are even rumors of an ancient global order of magicians dedicated to laying the rich low to aid poor. This legal hitch does not worry their rich benefactor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) — at least at first — but it does attract the attention of Thadeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man devoted to exposing magicians as frauds, as well as a pair of law agents: Dylan Rhodes with the FBI (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray with Interpol (Mélanie Laurent).
This is an admittedly cool set up, but it also builds an inherent problem intro the film’s mechanism: as fun as Daniel, Merritt, Henley and Jack are to be around, they’re carrying out someone else’s plan, operating mainly as puppets for the mysterious hoodie guy. This drags at the audience’s emotional investment in the characters, and turns into a crutch for the filmmakers.
Now You See Me does a relatively plausible job laying out how the tricks in the initial Vegas show are pulled off, but becomes more half-hearted from there. There’s a second performance in New Orleans, and a third and final one in New York City. By the time the latter rolls around, the film’s asking us to just sit back and passively accept the amazement of ever-more implausible feats. Director Louis Leterrier — he of the Transporter franchise and Clash of the Titans remake — tries to make up for this lack of hard storytelling labor by treating everything as an action scene even when it isn’t. His camera ceaselessly swoops from set piece to set piece, but the logistical thinness is undeniable. Given that any movie about magicians hinges on explaining the tricks in ways that both surprise and ring true — and that Now You See Me’s dramatic momentum relies on a build to the final big show — this is a critical flaw.
Ruffalo is pretty much excellent in everything, and it’s no surprise here that he nails the sublimated resentment and anger of a man who’s pride is on the line along with his job. Laurent’s Alma is the calming yin to Dylan’s seething yang: she learns the basic tricks of magic and defends the human desire to be fooled into wonderment, even as as she helps pursue this particular band of magicians for their lawbreaking.
Unfortunately, the screenwriters use these questions of belief and economic justice as mere intellectual garnish, failing to actually explore an unfolding process of discovery and ideas. Dylan and Alma’s subplot isn’t quite good enough to justify the amount of time Now You See Me devotes to it, and no ever bothers explaining why Thaddeus is so hellbent on being a kill joy. There’s also the matter of the ending, which careens into one of those poorly thought out reversals that undermines the audience’s emotional investment even as it attempts to wow them.
So while Now You See Me didn’t entirely lose my goodwill by the end, it certainly strained it. Like I said, it’s 70 percent attitude and 30 percent substance. The attitude worked alright for me, but obviously your mileage may vary.