Now You See Me

* * 1/2

Now You See Me is a movie with very little story or character, but a hell of a lot of plot and pizzazz.  And that’s mostly okay in this piffle of a caper film, the kind of high-concept contemporary movie-movie that operates in a world of its own making—one where logic, continuity and believable human motivations vanish in service of what plays like a Final Draft experiment with a singular agenda—to goose the audience and triple-cross our expectations.

Directed by Louis Letierre from a screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, the picture begins by introducing four small-time magicians who find themselves mysteriously recruited to team up and execute some major robberies—banks and a particular billionare benefactor—all part of their splashy Vegas act.

The magicians are cocky card master J. Daniel Atlas (handsomely gaunt Jessie Eisenberg, channeling vocal tics from The Social Network); pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco); Houdini-esque Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, appealing) specializing in vanishing from a dunk tank of piranhas; and “mentalist” Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), an artiste at hypnosis and suggestion.

Labeled the Four Horseman, the movie offers a fantastically fun set-up where they appear to rob a French bank and shower their enthusiastic audience with cash.  Yet the picture doesn’t focus on these four more than to make them ancillary catalysts that drive the movie’s labyrinthine plot—they are never more than two dimensional.

Enter Dylan Gray (Mark Ruffalo), a befuddled FBI agent in hot pursuit, teaming up with Interpol investigator Alma Dray, played with allure by Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Beginners) in heavily accented English.

The screenplay shifts focus from Daniel and crew to Dylan, haplessly two steps behind the con artists and unable to catch up, tracking them to New Orleans, the site of their next big show/heist.

About midway through Now You See Me the law of diminishing returns kicks in, the film failing to find a clear protagonist to hang out sympathies on, twisting and turning through various set-pieces and MacGuffins, essentially having no rules or consequences—this is magic after all—and becoming increasingly mechanical, leading to a contrived final act reveal.

Along the way Letierre mounts a superb, originally choreographed fight scene between Ruffalo and the agile Franco, employing clever use of both sleight of hand and athleticism. Likeable young Franco, who spends the first half of the picture in the backseat, takes this sequence to enjoyably lunatic heights.

The cluttered plot also gives us a romantic flirtation and notions of an unsolved past mystery which may, or may not, figure into the present events, as well as two old cads played in flashy turns by Michael Caine, as an insurance magnate on the take and Morgan Freeman, a former magician turned realty show host. Both veterans add class to the movie, and while each turns in an honest day’s work, Now You See Me won’t be remembered on either Oscar winner’s resume.

Fast and fun, Now You See Me goes down easily but ultimately employs a vanishing act with character and substance.

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