Actually, Don't See "Now You See Me"

A film can go bad at any stage of development, from scripting to casting to post-production and every step in between. Does bad writing have a monopoly on dooming the highest percentage of projects? Absolutely. But as important as a screenplay is, lots of other things have to go right for a film to hit that sweet spot of critical and commercial success. Conversely, it’s not easy to make a picture so misguided that it becomes impossible to identify its biggest weakness. But like a car that all at once blows its transmission, loses power steering, succumbs to a flat tire, and catches fire, “Now You See Me” is a wreck in every sense of the word. It’s difficult to pinpoint where the film went so wrong precisely because it goes so wrong.

Directed by Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter” and “The Incredible Hulk”) and scripted by five writers who are presumably unfamiliar with the concept of magic, “Now You See Me” is about a quartet of street illusionists – “The Four Horsemen” – who band together to steal large amounts of money from some high-profile victims. The four magicians are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher, and since I can’t recall a single character’s name from a film I saw just hours ago, I don’t feel particularly inspired to look that information up. In that sense, the picture’s biggest accomplishment is that it made so little an impression on me that I’m likely to forget its existence within a day or two.

The Four Horsemen are initially brought together by a mysterious figure that leaves each member a tarot card with a time and a meeting place. Allegedly a part of an organization called “The Eye,” this figure is only seen from behind, wearing a non-descript hoodie. Soon, the quartet has their own show in Vegas, but that their entire show is based on robbing a bank in Paris suggests that they’re arrested after their first performance, making the show’s elaborate staging a head-scratcher. This first heist is just the beginning of some truly migraine-inducing camerawork, and the banter between the film’s stars is similarly off-putting, ripe with clichés and low on imagination.

Also along for the ride are two screen legends that continue to make inexplicably poor career choices – Morgan Freeman as a devout debunker of magic and Michael Caine as a wealthy businessman and backer of Eisenberg and company. Mark Ruffalo, as an FBI agent, is the only cast member who seems to have not checked his talent at the door, but he’s too innately talented to be anything less than competent. Melanie Laurent plays a sly French Interpol agent, but the screenplay requires absolutely nothing of her, other than being beautiful.

Remarkably, the preceding paragraphs barely scratch the surface of the pic’s most serious shortcomings. That the film is so CGI-heavy completely destroys any intrigue that story might have had on the page, while also rendering every major story beat entirely nonsensical. As much as the writers try to explain away the tricks, none of them contain a pinch of real world plausibility. Take, for example, several of the leads diving off a building, their bodies suddenly exploding into torrents of cash. Is it an interesting visual? I suppose, in theory. But within the confines of a story about street magicians, it’s absurd. Leterrier and company make zero overtures in the direction of sci-fi, apparently expecting the audience to take the story at face value, which borders on insulting.

What’s even more problematic than the overuse of CGI is the overt but curious lack of a protagonist. Nearly every lead character is portrayed dispassionately. The Four Horsemen get surprisingly little screen time, but Freeman, Caine, and Ruffalo aren’t central to the story, either – although, the latter comes the closest. The screen time they do get is almost always expository. We get no hints as to what makes these characters tick, leaving us to wonder who we’re supposed to care about. Ultimately, we end up not caring at all.

An interesting twist might have partially salvaged the picture – at least on repeat viewings – but the twist as it exists would probably make the whole thing even less intelligible the second time around. That we were encouraged not to talk or write about the film until after it opens is telling, and I doubt that anyone involved thinks very highly of the end result. But the ineptitude of “Now You See Me” is so astounding, bordering on epic, that it begs the question – was Leterrier trying to torpedo his own film? Was there massive infighting between the filmmakers and the financiers? Something so exquisitely awful can’t be the product of a smooth production – can it?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: May 31, 2013
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriter: Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt, Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Ed Solomon
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Common
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language, some action and sexual content)