Ticketholders for both magic shows and caper movies are required to engage in a certain suspension of disbelief, so that they might enjoy the wonders unfolding before them without ruining things by asking too many questions.
“Now You See Me,” a heist film peppered with onstage legerdemain, will test the limits of your willingness to go with the flow. The explanations behind the bank robberies defy logic, granted — but at least they’re explanations.
The plot, on the other hand, takes a corkscrew spin that may or may not fling you out of the theater.
A quartet of magicians — a disgraced hypnotist (played by Woody Harrelson), a smug street illusionist (Jesse Eisenberg), an escape artist (Isla Fisher) and a pickpocket and lock-picker (Dave Franco) — are recruited by an anonymous benefactor to become the Four Horsemen, a glitzy and high-tech magic act that packs the big room at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand for one night only.
(I don’t include the characters’ names because, frankly, the movie doesn’t care about them; you won’t know any more about them in the last scene than you do in the first.)
Their Vegas show involves teleporting an audience member into a French bank vault, getting away with 30 million Euros, and showering the bills onto their audience. This attracts the attention of an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and a French sidekick (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”) assigned to him by INTERPOL.
But as Eisenberg (reprising his cleverer-than-thou bit from “The Social Network”) tells Ruffalo, to accuse them of the crime would be to acknowledge that magic exists.
Also tagging along for two more performances-turned-heists are the magicians’ wealthy producer (Michael Caine) as well as a professional magic-debunker (Morgan Freeman) out to expose the Horsemen as phonies.
Director Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter,” the “Clash of the Titans” remake), working from a script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, makes the first half of the movie pop, no mean feat when dealing with the essential paradox of magic on film – thanks to the most basic of special effects, going all the way back to Georges Méliès, anyone in a movie can do magic, so there’s no inherent thrill of seeing illusions, even ones that are exciting on stage, on the big screen.
There’s an inclination to forgive these stock characters since all of these actors are capable of lifting them to a higher plane, but “Now You See Me” gets so enraptured in its double-twists and reversals that it doesn’t give any of its cast members the time or space required to create something memorable out of the material.
What starts out as an engaging B-movie, one that tricks you and then shows you how it tricked you, sadly degenerates into an overly complicated mess with one or two twists too many. You can feel the energy leak out of this overlong (115 minutes) movie somewhere around the big car chase through Manhattan, and then “Now You See Me” wraps things up with a whammy of a plot twist that’s momentarily unexpected but doesn’t, upon any kind of reflection, pass the sniff test.
And if you’re OK with the film playing you for a sap, you’ll laugh and clap and wonder how that bird got into that hat. But if you think there’s a difference between being tricked and being cheated, you may feel swindled.