It takes balls of steel to write a film like “Now You See Me.” It’s the screenwriter declaring to the moviegoing public that he or she is smarter than they are, which motivates the audience to prove them wrong. Now, to be fair to the screenwriters of this particular film, anyone who says they figured out the ending before the Big Reveal just got lucky. At the same time, there are a lot of things about the movie that are a little…off, and not in a ‘this is a clue in disguise’ kind of way. The characters themselves tell you that you’re too close to see the big picture. As it turns out, the movie is the same way. It’s a thrill to watch while it’s happening, but take a step back when the credits roll, and it reveals itself to be a house of cards.
J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are talented illusionists with varying degrees of success – a couple of them are actually cons – when they receive a mysterious invitation to meet in an abandoned building. One year later, they are performing together in Las Vegas as the Four Horsemen, and they execute a dazzling stunt that involves robbing a bank halfway around the world. This, naturally, attracts the attention of both the FBI and Interpol, which leads to cynic Fed Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) being teamed up with French desk jockey Alma Day (Melanie Laurent). Watching from the sidelines with bemusement is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), an illusionist who has made a career out of debunking other illusionists. Rhodes isn’t sure whether he is trustworthy or another piece in a larger puzzle.
There are three reasons actors kill for roles like this: they are obviously fun to play, they learn neat party tricks, and doing said party tricks makes them feel smart, which is what all actors want. All four Horsemen fare well, but Eisenberg is the key; he uses that swagger he flexed in “The Social Network” to great effect, with Dave Franco’s street-smart hustler a close second. Ruffalo, on the other hand, never finds the right rhythm, as if he’s deliberately trying not to be himself. Which is odd, because that is precisely what got him to this point.
The three showcase scenes in the movie are impressive visual stunts, thrilling and engrossing. Where the movie has trouble is in the scenes in between. Between the forced meet-cute between Rhodes and Day, and the abundance of misdirection that goes hand in hand with a movie about con artists, the screenwriters opt for the one-liner to trump everything else, and it works from time to time. They only have to answer for their omissions once the game is over, but then again, by that time they’ve already won, so hats off to them for distracting the audience just long enough to beat their mark, as it were.
It seems wrong to poke holes in a movie like “Now You See Me” when there are far, far dumber things happening at the movies in the summer. Even with its warts, this is a pretty damn smart popcorn movie; it’s just not as clever as it thinks it is. Last time we checked, though, less smart is still better than dumb, so it has that going for it. Which is nice.