"I need a time out... there's too many French people in the room."
Too many times I've been fooled into thinking that a great cast will automatically equal a great movie. I've been lulled into a false sense of security too many times by the likes of Troy, Mystery Men, America's Sweethearts, and All the King's Men. When the trailers first started appearing for this summer's magician bank robbers movie Now You See Me, I began to get flashes of the same dread. Could a film with a premise that sounds this preposterous really be populated by so many talented actors? Well, like any great magician, this cast was at least two steps ahead of the audience, because this is far and away the best film I've seen so far this summer...
Four struggling magicians with varying specialities are called together by a mysterious benefactor to form a team act that promises to take their abilities to the next level. There's street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), traditional illusionist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and struggling pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). They resurface one year later as the newly formed Four Horseman, financed by wealthy industrialist Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). The big trick during their first show at Las Vegas' MGM Grand is to rob a bank thousands of miles away in France.
When they succeed, they are arrested and their case is assigned to bedraggled FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). Because of the international nature of their crime, Rhodes is paired up with Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), but they must let the magicians go once they realize that there's no physical evidence to hold them. With no other leads, the agents turn to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a man who has made a living debunking the bad illusions of poor magicians. It isn't long before The Four Horseman announce their next show, and begin upping the stakes for their finales, and Rhodes & Dray traverse the United States trying to stay one step ahead of the rogue magicians.
To say any more about the film is to give away too much, although it would be virtually impossible for me to spoil the way that things shake out since it requires watching the entire film for it to make sense. Needless to say, the film is much more clever than I could have anticipated, particularly since it comes from the director of the Clash of the Titans remake, Louis Leterrier. In fact, I fully expected his direction to be the film's greatest liability, but he does an admirable job of keeping things moving and never getting too far ahead of the action, story or twists.
The film's screenplay was written by Ed Solomon (best known as one of the co-creators of the Bill & Ted franchise), based on a story Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt, and is the film's best asset by far. The dialogue is witty, funny & keeps things moving in new and interesting directions. It's nice to see a film that relies so heavily on dialogue and witty repartee between its characters, particularly in a summer that has, to put it mildly, valued spectacle over virtually anything else. The film is also smart enough to keep you guessing right up until the end, and, provided that you are willing to go along with their final twist, will make you want to see the film again to see how well it all holds together.
The only criticism I would offer of the screenplay is that it keeps The Four Horseman out of the picture almost entirely for much of the fourth and fifth acts of the film (it is most assuredly a five act structure). The audience becomes invested in their storyline & characters, and while the last third of the film does concern them, they're barely on-screen for any of it. It does make sense in the larger context of the story that the filmmakers are telling, but their presence is definitely missed for that portion of the film.
Having said that, however, the real star of the film is Mark Ruffalo. His character was by far my favorite, and Ruffalo rises admirably to the challenge of more or less carrying the film once he appears. This is not to say that the rest of the cast is bad, it was just nice to see him rising above the fray, since he has gone unrecognized so often in his ensemble work in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Kids Are All Right, and even The Avengers. The first formal reuniting of Zombieland co-stars Jesse Eisenberg & Woody Harrelson is every bit as good as you hoped it would be. Harrelson is always a delight, and ever since The Social Network, Eisenberg has been able to create his own persona independent of older claims that he was the second coming of Michael Cera.
The rest of the cast is also great, with no weak links at all. Freeman & Caine are clearly having a great time as two old codgers, Fisher has some really great moments, particularly her introduction, and Franco has the best action scene in the entire film. Melanie Laurent is probably the only character not given a whole lot to do, which isn't surprising in a cast this stacked. Her character is meant to be enigmatic and mysterious, so most of the time, the audience is kept at arm's length from her, but she's certainly not distracting.
Much like Trance relied on your willingness to believe in the power of hypnotism to go along with many of the plot developments, Now You See Me similarly relies on your belief in magic to keep it afloat. Several characters in the film are continually reminding one another that a leap of faith is required to believe in real magic, and the screenwriters are clearly hoping that such subliminal suggestiveness will translate to the film's audience as well. It does require a few leaps in logic to fully go along with the film to all the various places it takes you, but once it has its hooks in you, it's hard to not go along for the ride.
If nothing else, you should at least be able to appreciate this talented cast delivering some zippy, fun dialogue, and you certainly won't get that in any other movie currently in release. This, more than any other film at the multiplex right now, is actually worth your time & money.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]