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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Now You See Me



NOW YOU SEE ME (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Louis Leterrier, 2013 (Summit Entertainment)

Movies are a magical art form — as Orson Welles, who was both a moviemaker and a magician, might have been quick to tell us.  They transport us to magical lands, with magical people, and sometimes they excel at using magic and magicians as subjects. The Illusionist and The Prestige are recent pretty wondrous examples. Now You See Me isn’t.

Instead, this new cinematic magic show  — in which four professional magicians join together for a Las Vegas-style super-act that may also be a super-crime — is a movie so self-consciously clever, so intent on surprising the hell out of us, and so utterly, shamelessly, mind-numbingly  preposterous that  you may walk out of it feeling that your mental pockets have been picked. (In a way, they have.)

Yet, like that Vegas-y magic act it shows us, Now You See Me snookers you for a while. For a half hour or so, I actually thought I was going to be pretty well entertained. The movie looks flashy, seems sort of smart, throws a lot of star-power at us. It’s directed by another of  French action man Luc Besson’s protégés and Euro-slicksters (Bessonites?) — Louis Leterrier, the son of film director Francois Leterrier, and the helmer of Besson’s Transporter movies, as well as of the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans).

Leterrier‘s films at least look good. (So, they say, did his dad‘s.)  And, Now You See Me stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco (James’s’ kid brother) as the magicians —  “The Four Horsemen” they’re called, despite the presence of Ms. Fisher — along with further costars Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent as an FBI and French Interpol agent on their trail (after one of their magic acts seems like an actual bank robbery), plus Michael Caine as a big smarmy financial guy and Morgan Freeman as a magic fraud expert out to expose the foursome. So it’s a movie that seems to have a lot going for it, including that Grade-A cast and a very flashy production — one of those ultra-high-tech shows where everything looks like a perfume ad and is edited like a car chase. And it even has some good writers, though they haven‘t done such a good job here.

The script — by Ed Solomon, Edward Ricourt and Boaz Yakin (who wrote that moving 1994 big city heroin drama Fresh — tries to be a piece of ingenious fakery, flim-flamming us through the movie and the acts, with a  string of surprises going off like murder mystery last-chapter fireworks at the end. But, by the time we reached that end, the actors were the main reason I was watching the show, and the explanations were more unbelievable (and more mystifying) than the mysteries themselves.

Now You See Me begins with the assembling of the magic men (and woman)  — card-trickster and sleight-of-hand sharpie J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), escape artist Henley Reeves (Fisher), mind-reader /hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and street thief Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Quickly rising to the top of the magic charts, outstripping David Copperfield (this movie’s technical advisor) and Burt Wonderstone (this movie’s patron saint), they’re soon ready to  stage their super-big, super-impossible  (and super-illegal) super-trick. In a  glitzy Vegas theatre deep in Hangover country, they pick a bewildered  audience member, hypnotize him, make him believe he’s been teleported to the inside of his French bank’s vault (covered by remote cameras and relayed to the Vegas Hilton), somehow steal all the money (it seems) and then “teleport” the fortune back to the theatre, where they supposedly pour the loot down on the deliriously happy audience. Funny money?

Hey, that’s some act. And if you did it for a live audience, without the benefit of movie editing and CGI, it would no doubt blow everyone away. As part of a movie — with the benefit of editing and camera trickery — it’s not quite as impressive. Furthermore since our heroes have now committed a robbery in front of thousands of witnesses (some admittedly well-paid), you wonder why they still get bookings. (Maybe I missed it.) You wonder why the FBI (as represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (as represented by  Melanie Laurent), or even just the local police, can’t do a better job with them. (There’s an explanation for that, but not a very satisfying one.) You wonder who pays Morgan Freeman to debunk magic acts. (Could he also get paid for debunking horror movies and fairytales?) You wonder if  Wonderstone will show up and teleport them all to Wonderland and West Hollywood..


I should tell you that the movie later also offers what’s supposed to be a perfectly logical explanation for the “bank robbery trick“ and the other tricks and everything strange and seemingly magical that happens (something that might actually, supposedly happen in the real world), and if you can swallow them, you may  be entertained by the rest of the Now You See Me. You might be amused by the alleged romance, or rom-com slight-of-hand, between the chic Laurent and Ruffalo at his sloppiest. But in the end, it’s all tricks and little magic.

Now You See Me is  lucky it has its cast, especially Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, to anchor it in some kind of amusing humanity and acting expertise. But it doesn’t have enough of Caine, and Freeman, unfortunately, is saddled with some of the script’s more absurd plot twists. Of all the show’s many absurdities, the most absurd is the main trick itself — an elaborate triple-reverse wannabe-shockeroo that goes too far.

Of course, I don’t want to let any rabbits out of the hat. Or keep any Bessonites out of Bessonia. And I’m aware that “it’s only a movie.”  But a movie, like a magic trick (and Now You See Me tries to be both) ought to find its own vein of internal logic and stick to it. Not only is the main trick here a piece of sleight-of hand or sleight-of-story that couldn’t happen in the real world. By rights, it shouldn‘t have happened in this movie either, not even to Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon