NOW YOU SEE ME begins with a giddy sense of mischief and ends with a contrivance that bespeaks the desperation of failing to plan for a proper ending. In between, it quietly devolves from slam-bang fun to barely coherent as four magicians lead the FBI and a debunker on a merry chase through ancient mysticism and modern corruption.
It has all the hallmarks of an elegant thriller that keeps the audience as much in the dark as it does the people on screen. They would be four talented, but down on their luck illusionists (Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco), who are recruited by an anonymous but hugely motivated person to perform three intricate and astonishing tricks. From broke to headlining in Las Vegas, they capture the world’s attention when they seem to rob a bank in Paris during their maiden Vegas performance. The proof of their heist being the French Euros that rain down on the audience during the finale, and the empty vault in Paris with a ticket to the show. It’s enough to bring in Vegas cop Det. Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), though he’d rather be wrapping up what he considers to be a more important case. He’s even less happy when paired with a French Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) who is as entranced by stage magic’s ability to deceive, as Rhodes is annoyed by being fooled. He’s also annoyed at being stonewalled by a professional debunker of illusions (Morgan Freeman), who has cashed in on giving away professional secrets, and is hoping to do so again by figuring out how the Four Horseman, as they style themselves, accomplished the heist.
The performances all around are excellent, with each actor doing a fine job of pretending that they are in a better film than they find themselves by the end. Eisenberg in particular has the insouciant arrogance of a guy with low self-esteem who has turned to magic in order to be one step, or several, ahead of everyone around him. Harrelson takes a different tack as a mentalist who uses a complicated combination of intuition and body language to deduce a mark’s secrets, but uses a hollow but folksy sort of charm to take the edge off his subjects’ sense of invaded privacy. Fisher is brash, Franco is cute, and that pretty much sums up their purpose though special kudos for how aetherial Fisher looks while floating over a packed auditorium in a bubble, or freaked out while seeming to drown in a stage tank. The necessary chemistry between Ruffalo and Laurent never quite sparks, though each is perfectly credible, as are both Freeman and Michael Caine as a billionaire. Those latter two basically play stock versions of themselves, but it’s not a bad thing, only predictable.
For the first two-thirds of the film, there is a nice lack of predictability, aside from Freeman and Caine, with a script studded with clues and the misdirection that the magicians keep referring to as the method to their magic. Mysterious invitations on tarot cards, peculiar apartments empty of everything except an esoteric test, talk of an ancient and noble order for only the best illusionists. If only that suspense were maintained. Made with obvious affection for the craft of stage magic, there is an excellent concept here, and executed such that even when the trick of the heist is explained, it’s as impressive, if far-fetched, as the magic it simulated. Then things go wrong, and the last third becomes an extended chase sequence substituting action for cleverness, and cliché for novelty. A chase through New Orleans at Mardi Gras? Oh please.
NOW YOU SEE ME looks as slick as stage magic, with spinning cameras and kinetic moves that makes things seem more exciting than they are. Alas, expositional dialogue, and loose ends that aren’t so much tantalizing as annoying, reveal it to be as insubstantial as flash paper, and a script that fails to find the final, most necessary sort of misdirection. The kind that would make us not care about what went wrong.