Movie: Now You See Me; Director: Louis Leterrier; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.
It was easy to become excited for "Now You See Me" after seeing the preview for it ahead of every other film I've reviewed here. There's magicians, there's major heists, there's Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine and Woody Harrelson - every ingredient was destined to come together in something fantastic (minus Jesse Eisenberg, of course, who has played the same character since developing in his mother's womb).
Except, somehow, it's not.
Everything, other than the magic tricks and cinematography, which are both phenomenal, seems to fail in the most boring ways possible. There is no spectacular failure because there's nothing spectacular to see here at all. It's all so much more frustrating than entertaining.
The Four Horsemen, J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco with a speech impediment), are all solo magicians. They all receive a tarot card inviting them to an apartment building in the city as they con their way into petty cash or sex with impressed people they perform for on the street.
They all felt special receiving this card, thinking they were each the only one invited, until they all find themselves outside the locked apartment door.
"Nothing's ever locked," the least famous and successful magician, Jack Wilder, says as he quickly picks the lock.
The whole scene is a contrived attempt to show, through that one single act of unlocking a locked door, that they were destined to work together and that they are all the perfect fit for their unknown benefactor's plans. It also serves to introduce connections between those who have a past together. Before embarking on her own, for example, Henley Reeves was J. Daniel Atlas' assistant for his stage shows. Also, everyone knows McKinney because he is a former TV mentalist (magician who can hypnotize, read minds, etc.) who lost it all when his manager and brother ran off with his fortune. Atlas is also the career inspiration for Wilder, apparently, despite being just a tiny bit older.
So, that's that. There is the character development and also the premise we will be working with. An ancient magic order called "The Eye" has existed forever, apparently, and a benefactor is setting up a whole plot that the quartet must go through in order to join the order.
Of course, that's also all we know because when Morgan Freeman's character, former magician and current debunker of magic Thaddeus Bradley, tries to explain what "The Eye" is for his Internet debunking show, he's interrupted by Michael Cain, as billionaire Arthur Tressler. Tressler produces "The Four Horseman" shows, so he offers Bradley millions of dollars not to reveal the group's magic secrets. Bradley says he doesn't accept the proposition and will continue his work - but we don't benefit by Bradley standing his ground because we still don't know what "The Eye" does. And we never will.
See, while the Horsemen do their wild, expensive stage shows, they earn a large following as Robin Hood-like characters. At the end of each show, some evil bank or rich person is robbed so that they can make it rain money from the ceiling onto all their poor, helpless audience members. They're not really Robin Hood, however, just mere people who must complete the tasks to join that order we still don't know anything about.
There is a twist in the film, and it's a fairly good one that almost makes the otherwise useless and underdeveloped plotline worthwhile. Still, if the twist was the object of the Horsemen's high jinks, then there certainly had to be a much more straightforward way to get there - one that doesn't waste our time or the film's budget. They cast rapper Common in an extremely minor role that they could have hired an unknown to play better and cheaper.
So, since almost the entirety of the film lets us down on what could have been an extremely entertaining concept of magicians pulling off major, international bank heists, we instead get something that could have used a few more months of pre-production development.
But that's the Hollywood way. Much like magicians deflecting our attention onto something bright, shiny and expensive, they pull some simple sleight of hand to actually present us something much less than our expectations and wasted disposable income.
That's not to say the film is all bad. Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent, the FBI agent and breathtaking French Interpol agent, respectively, who were teamed up to bring the group to justice, are strong here. Ruffalo, specifically, may have found a niche - the tired, jaded detective - that has been dying in the Hollywood Canon that I would be happy to see him cast again to revive. The rest of the acting is just fine, too, and learning how the magic tricks are set up - all of which are revealed as part of the less-majestic non-magical police-procedural portions of the film - is entertaining.
In fact, the portions that promised this movie would be good, like the magic, will stay with you as the elements that dragged it down into cliche will leave your mind within hours of viewing the film.