There's a great movie out now about magicians, sleight-of-hand maestros, illusionists, card and coin tricksters.
Now You See Me is not that movie.
If you're so inclined, check out Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a wonderful and illuminating documentary about the veteran prestidigitator. It's playing in select theaters, and will no doubt be available on DVD and VOD.
As for Now You See Me, it's a slick and kind of smirky entertainment in which a quartet of street charlatans-turned-Las Vegas stars pull off an epic heist, using the tricks of the magic trade. But where a deft magic act turns on the performer's ability to make the impossible appear completely real (after all, you've just witnessed it happening right in front of you), in Louis Leterrier's film, the presto changeo business is done with mirrors, so to speak. And with a flashy whirl of visual effects that undermine the experience, rather than enhance it.
The movie wants to be Ocean's Eleven with top hats and wands, but the rapport between Now You See Me's principals doesn't come close to approximating Clooney and company's (or Sinatra and company's) cool. Instead, we get Jesse Eisenberg, tightly wound and talky as J. Daniel Atlas, a cocky card and coin hustler who finds himself banding together with three other characters: Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), who does Houdini-like escapes; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a mentalist, and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a pickpocket. Assembled by a billionaire businessman (Michael Caine), they become a kind of instant supergroup, billed as the Four Horsemen and headlining on the Vegas strip.
Their showstopper: robbing a Paris bank vault - by teleportation - and showering its bounty of bills down on the audience. They're Robin Hoods, these four - bent on redistributing the wealth, and making fat cats pay for their greedy ways. And so the FBI, in the person of Mark Ruffalo, is on the case, assisted by an intrepid French Interpol detective (Melanie Laurent). She says, "We are dealing with something far bigger than us" in an accent to die for.
Morgan Freeman, as is his wont lately (see Oblivion), shows up to make meaningful pronouncements in a voice that could sell credit cards or gay marriage (he's done ads for both). He is cast as a kind of professional debunker, and casts a cynical eye on the Four Horsemen and their high-stakes shenanigans.
Leterrier, who directed the instant classic Clash of the Titans, thinks himself an action director, and so much of the time Now You See Me jettisons all pretense of the illusionary arts to devote its time, its money, and its stunt team to high-speed chases and car crashes.
Maybe Now You See Me really wants to be Fast & Furious with top hats and wands.
Now You See Me **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Louis Leterrier. With Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, and Woody Harrelson. Distributed by Summit Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, action, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, On Movies Online, at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.