Director of Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier, embarked on a task to create a heist film with a twist—the thieves are stage magicians. And it’s a solid premise. Inception’s shtick was dreams, here it’s magic. However, herein lays a dilemma. Do you focus on wizardry and shoot for the supernatural, or do you try and root the story in a realism that challenges the audience and also adds verisimilitude to the universe? The latter is unarguably the more difficult of the two, but also the more rewarding. Leterrier shot for both without a consistency to make either exceedingly effective.
The movie has three focal groups. The first is the Four Horsemen—a band of stage magicians comprised of Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson). For reasons unknown, these four have joined acts and began a spree of heists utilizing their powers of illusion. The second is the FBI, who has assigned Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to track the Horsemen down. Finally there’s Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), an ex-magician who’s dedicated his life to exposing fraudulent performers. This trio tries to outmaneuver one another as the Horsemen’s mysterious ambitions and plot unfolds.
There is a lot of talent in the aforementioned cast. However, the problem lies in the fact that four of the leads—the Horsemen—are underdeveloped to a fault. Their characters are single noted and their relationship underexposed. Whenever the movie shows their ventures it’s a hollow display, and to make matters worse, the plot is as thin as its antiheroes. The story moves about at an admittedly brisk pace sans its habit of dropping exposition bombs, but it fails to really go deep enough to be satisfactory. The film attempts to distract you from this with tricks, illusions, and neat special effects—much akin to the stage performers.
Now You See Me cheats with its universe’s rules for cheap amusement. It’s the equivalent of rattling keys in the face of an infant. As previously noted, Leterrier attempts to utilize both logical illusions and the supernatural, but it comes off as a sloppy affair. The supernatural is implemented only when it is convenient to the script (McKinney’s hypnosis and mind reading’s inexplicable), and though the film establishes that real magic exists unbeknownst to most of the world, the fact that the Horsemen utilize it throughout the film undermines much of the established efforts. It feels like a copout.
The movie’s failures prove as disappointing as they are because there are genuine sparks of intelligence. There’s a fight scene where a character has to utilize illusions and tricks to outdo his opponent. It was honestly exciting, but it and a few other scenes were far too rare. Daniel Atlas had a catchphrase of sorts in the film that he’d preface before a trick: “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.” I feel like this was a warning from the writer to the audience, because those words ring all to true when it comes to thinking about this movie.