For people who love lecture halls, this movie will be filled with magic. Every 10 minutes or so it seems the moviemakers get tired of showing us big tricks or fun chase scenes and then cut to the sententious tones of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, or even Jesse Eisenberg filling us in on “what magic really is” — whether it’s misdirection, a long con, or a source of delight. The problem with this gaudy overpromoted film, however, is that it misses the most important part of what magic really should provide: the payoff. What this one delivers may surprise you, but mostly by making you feel stupid for wasting two hours on something so cheating and dumb.
Now You See Me opens with that most overly hyped archetype in pop culture right now, the street magician. In fact, there are four of them: a woman who does escapes, a mentalist, a pickpocket, and a David Blaine stand-in. Mark Ruffalo plays a scruffy New York detective charged with bringing down the foursome, which has been recruited by some mysterious über-magician to bamboozle the world with a series of high-profile crimes that appear to be acts of prestidigitation. The smart part of the film is the melding of a supposed magic how-to lesson with a major sting subplot grafted onto a whodunit. There are so many levels of artifice involved that the audience can’t help but be carried along, making the stupidity of the reveal all the more infuriating.
Movies are stage tricks by design: The use of shadows and lenses competes well with what real-life mountebanks used to accomplish with smoke and mirrors. It’s not that live magic isn’t thrilling (and creepy and sordid); it’s just redundant to do movies about magic tricks. (Stories about magicians, like 2010’s animated film The Illusionist, on the other hand, can be brilliant and touching.) Except for the fun spectacles, this film is yet another example of what’s wrong with Hollywood poking at its own trickeries. When you get past the showy stuff, there’s nothing much to see.