Now You See Me is not the most proper title for the movie. Every thirty minutes involves director Louis Leterrier and his screenwriting crew showing another magic show wrapped around a heist. Then, right when something entertaining happens, Morgan Freeman pops onscreen to explain everything that happened in that sonorous voice of his. Considering how many times the story stops to take a ten-minute detour to explain exactly what we just saw the best title is Show and Tell when it would have been better off just showing.
The telling part, no matter how lovely Freeman's voice is, reveals a shallow exercise in trickery. NYSM is about magicians and the tricks they pull as a team of illusionists with different skills to rob banks and insurance companies blind as the Four Horsemen. This team, a murderer's row of talent featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and a barely there Dave Franco. Or, at least you think it's about them, until the movie spends more than half of its running time devoted to FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to catch the Four Horsemen in the act.
This is an error of storytelling at the most basic level. Why in the world would an audience want to spend our time watching a cop doing the same investigative work that we've seen in countless other films? We could be hanging out with the illusion crew as they wisecrack and plan each of the heists with the threat of investigation at their tail. Instead we have Ruffalo wearing a look of revolving confusion and anger through endless scenes of Freeman smugly explaining each act of the plot. The creative limpness is felt in the action scenes too, featuring two bloodless chases with almost no humor.
What's left is an occasionally maddening plot that feels like it's making itself up as it goes along. Details are brought up, undercooked, and dropped without any warning. Michael Caine, for example, has a role as the Four Horsemen's mysterious benefactor and after he suffers an injury that should put him in the forefront of the hunt to get the Horsemen he just vanishes from the film without a word. Then there's the pathetic writing involving Rhodes' French Interpol partner Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent), who exists to eventually utter a variation of the line "I hate you but I love you" and generally look pretty.
This is also one of those films where the less thought about the plot, the better. It's already bad enough that it exists as what is essentially a super-team origin story with most of the coming together bits happening off-screen. But in addition to making characters appear and disappear with no cohesion it also ends on an angrily arbitrary note. The last twenty minutes of this film are the most slapped together I've seen all year, explaining a plot whose details contradict almost everything else we've seen, and concluding with a revelation that is not misdirection, but an outright cheat.
There's still a good film that could have been salvaged from all this by looking at the first act. Watching the team come together, and seeing some of the magic tricks performed directly into the camera, invites us along on the shenanigans. It's when we become an audience watching another audience that the film starts to lose its steam, but there's still Harrelson and Eisenberg having a ton of fun messing with the authorities. Harrelson is the best, reminding me of Hannibal Lecter if the Hannibal had gone with magic instead of cannibalism. But Fisher and Franco, as much as they are supposed to be part of the team, are around so that the team name of Four Horsemen makes sense. Fisher barely gets anything to do and Franco gets one fun action scene before he's benched again as well.
Thinking back on this film is making me sad because I've been out of the theater for barely over an hour and am struggling to remember much else I found fun about the film. The most important lesson that we can learn from this boondoggle is one of casting and execution. Just because you can afford to hire Freeman to explain every detail about the plot, doesn't mean that you should.
Directed by Louis Leterrier.
Screenplay written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt.
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Isla Fisher.