Friday, May 31, 2013

Too much plot mars the magic

Laden with characters and plot, Now You See Me -- a caper movie involving four magicians -- is more juggling act than magic show.

At one point during Now You See Me -- a caper movie about four larcenous magicians -- Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are featured in a happily confrontational scene. Caine, as an arrogant tycoon used to getting his way, and Freeman, as a former magician who has built a TV career by exposing other people's tricks, are locked in a toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball exchange that's fun to watch.

My reperotire of tricks doesn't include mind reading, but I'd like to believe that both Caine and Freeman were thinking, "Take your best shot because no matter how good it is, I'll match it."

I'm not saying that this scene should be added to anyone's list of great movie moments or that it's in a particularly good movie, but it hints at what might have happened had director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk and Transporter 2) been able to get beyond slick surfaces, brisk pacing and flashy camera work. Now You See Me suggests an anatomical impossibility: It's all pulse and no heart.

The movie begins in promising enough fashion, introducing us to four magicians, each with a distinct skill. Jesse Eisenberg plays Daniel Atlas, a whip-smart master of card tricks. Woody Harrelson portrays Merritt McKinney, a cynical mentalist. Dave Franco is Jack Wilder, a young man who claims to have paranormal mind powers but actually specializes in picking pockets, and Isla Fisher appears as Henley Reeves. Her act consists of trying to unshackle herself in a water tank that's about to be invaded by flesh eating piranhas.

The four magicians are summoned to New York City, where a mysterious and unseen figure involves them in a scheme to use complicated illusions to mask a series of heists -- and to provide the movie with a core of mystery: Just who's pulling the strings here?

This, of course, introduces the opportunity for Leterrier to toss around a variety of red herrings and to stage some glossy show-business spectacles: We see the magicians -- who form a group known as The Four Horsemen -- creating their illusions, most of which eventually are explained.

So long as the movie stays close to the four magicians, it's easy to remain involved, especially if you don't think too much about whether you're watching genuine sleight-of-hand or CGI-assisted magic. But Now You See Me eventually shifts its focus, concentrating on the FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) who's trying to catch the magicians with help from an Interpol detective played by French actress Melanie Laurent.

Leterrier has been given lots of heavy acting artillery, and any one of the movie's large cast could have provided a compelling center. But instead of conjuring up wily character magic, Leterrier seems more like a juggler who's frantically trying to keep the movie's many plot points aloft.

If you bother to play Now You See Me back in your mind (and there's no compelling reason you should), you'll be hard-pressed to believe that the intricacies of its plot were remotely possible anywhere but in a screenwriter's imagination: Three writers were involved in creating the screenplay and story. They find entertaining moments in what othewise amounts to a self-defeating hodge podge of conceits, ploys and attempted fake-outs.

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