So I’ve been reading a lot of discussions and criticisms of Now You See Me, and while some of them make good points about pacing or character development, the ones that I find the most ridiculous criticize the “magic.”
Look, kids. We all know that there’s no such thing as magic. Or, at least, not in the Harry Potter sense. The “magic” we see is an illusion—a deception that tricks the brain into thinking something amazing happened because it can’t find a logical solution. We also know that there’s no such thing as Jedi (I wish). Yet we don’t criticize Star Wars for being unrealistic—unless, of course, we’re arguing about parsecs being a measurement of distance, not time. So why do we criticize a movie like this for its “magic”?
Dustin Rowles of Pajiba discusses this double standard: “When there’s magic involved, a percentage of the population expects actual magic instead of movie magic, and while audiences are willing to overlook the impossible absurdity of a franchise like Fast & Furious, they’re often less forgiving where the point is the magic, itself.” Basically, what we’re saying here, guys, is it’s a goddamn movie, so chill out. I just want you to think about that before, during, and after you see Now You See Me. Let’s dig in.
You know how some movies can get really “meta” on us? Yeah, Now You See Me did that. The movie’s slogan is “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.” It’s uttered in the beginning of the movie by J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), and the line is used constantly throughout the movie, though sometimes worded slightly different. You might assume that this is just part of developing the characters of The Four Horsemen and how they’re vague jerks, but it’s not. It’s actually a warning from director Louis Leterrier and the writers. And it’s not very subtle. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have bruises on my brain from where they were beating me with this message.
So what’s the deal with the message? Well, this is where it gets fun. You know how the point of the illusion is to distract you with one hand and fool you with the other? That’s exactly what this movie does to you. Now You See Me isn’t a movie about magic shows, heists, love interests, social commentaries on how the rich take advantage of the poor, or competing magicians. All of those secondary plot points, flashy action sequences, and “Who did it?” red herrings are just the movie’s way of proving how easy it is to distract you from what’s right in front of your face. And that, of course, is that it’s really easy to figure out who’s behind everything and what’s going to happen.
Your first red flag was when Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) started giving away all of The Four Horsemen’s tricks in the first act of the movie. As soon as he does that, you start to feel like you know exactly how The Four Horsemen are going to pull a fast one on the FBI agents. But you’re never right. Once again, the closer you look (at the trick), the less you’ll see (of what’s actually happening). Your second red flag? The romance between agents Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). I keep reading comments about how people thought the romance was unnecessary in this movie. You’re right. It was. But I’ll bet you were paying more attention to their chemistry, if they were ever going to kiss, and whether or not Dray was going to betray Rhodes than you did to the tarot cards given to the illusionists in the beginning of the movie, which by the way, symbolically reveal the entire plot of the movie (The “lover,” the “hermit,” the “death,” and the “high priestess”). Tell me now: was the romance unnecessary, or did it do its job as a distraction? That’s what I thought.
Speaking of the “Who did it?” wild goose chase the writers led us on, I have a feeling if we all would’ve stopped paying so much attention to The Four Horsemen, we would’ve totally seen it coming that Agent Rhodes was behind everything. All of that “mentalist” talk Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) did in the containment room about Rhodes’ father leaving him; the constant conversations about the magician Lionel Shrike, who drowned during one of his tricks; his genuine hatred of anything magical that seemed a little “he doth protest too much”—it was all right there, but no one saw it coming. Why? Once again, everything in this movie is a distraction.
Now that I’ve bludgeoned you mercilessly with my point, we should talk about why people thought this movie was too unrealistic. It was the same problem we encountered with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The thing that’s so amazing about live magic performances is that the illusions are physically being done before your eyes (even though you’re being tricked, too). With a movie, you can never tell if the trick you’re seeing—like Jesse Eisenberg shuffling the cards around in the beginning of the movie—is actually the actor doing the trick or just CGI. Because if it’s really being done, it’s more impressive. And that’s where a lot of movies surrounding “magic” lose their awe factor for audiences. Nevertheless, as I said before, it’s important to remember that all “magic” is an illusion any way, so it’s not like the addition of CGI is that reproachable. It just makes the movie seem a little less cool.
Here’s one thing that did bug me with this movie. Even though I know the whole point was everything being a distraction, I feel like we were never actually given clear direction of which characters we were supposed to follow. The Four Horsemen? The FBI? We see both of their stories, but we’re not sure if we should be rooting for the illusionists or the people trying to capture the illusionists. Like…which one is the bad guy? Not that every movie needs to be so white-and-black with its development (because real people aren’t even like that), but it’s kind of hard to root for characters when they’re all on the same level.
Also, we really don’t learn anything about any of the characters beyond what they’re doing in the time frame of the story’s events. I find that especially upsetting because of the awesome dynamic between The Four Horsemen ensemble cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher. They’ve got great witty banter, clashing egos, and maybe even some not-so-buried relationship hatchets between Eisenberg’s Atlas and Fisher’s Henley Reeves (who, unfortunately, seems to serve no other purpose than being the one illusionist with a vagina). But we know nothing more than their names and what they were doing right before they united. So, yeah, not caring about these people.
Another problem? WHO IN THE HELL WAS CARRYING THE GODDAMN HANDHELD CAMERA? A MONKEY?
Overall, Now You See Me was kind of the magical Ocean’s Eleven with less character development and more CGI, which hurt what could’ve been a great film, making it more of a good film. The story’s heists, however, were very entertaining, especially when we were shown just exactly how they were pulled off and the resulting cat-and-mouse chase after each one. The ensemble cast of The Four Horsemen played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher had some serious chemistry, but they were never given sufficient screen time or character development to really make us care about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Also, the chemistry between Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent’s agents was kind of lackluster, but at least they were pretty to look at. All in all, the best part of this movie is that it tricks you just as much as the tricks The Four Horsemen pull on the unsuspecting agents after them. If you can figure out the answers while watching this film (no cheating), then I might just buy you a beer. Because the farther from the trick you look, the more you’ll see.