Magicians Behaving Badly

Magician and floating lady

“This might be the greatest movie ever,” my fiancée says, about 20 minutes in to Now You See Me, the 2013 film about four magicians who use their trickery to rob banks. Her comment comes on the heels of a scene in which the four—from a Las Vegas stage—appear to rob a bank in Paris, then shower the loot onto the audience. It is a scene that makes you pause to wonder whether these four magicians have figured out a way of bending the rules of space and time. Alas, the only force in this universe with more power to deceive than a magician is a film editor. There is another explanation to the trick; you just haven’t seen it yet.

The only force in this universe with more power to deceive than a magician is a film editor.

The film stars, well…everybody. The cast is an ensemble intentionally gathered to keep you guessing as to who exactly is behind all this disappearing money. The film opens with a mysterious (unseen) figure bringing together four illusionists for an unknown purpose. The Four Horseman as they come to be known are composed of street magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, channeling Mark Zuckerberg-cum-Criss Angel); has-been mentalist Merritt McKinney (a typically smarmy Woody Harrelson); escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, deprived here of playing the sexy, sassy girl at which she excels); and pickpocket Jack Wilder (James Franco’s younger brother, Dave), who you forget is there until about an hour after the credits. The four hit the scene with a magic act bankrolled by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine, who, to no one’s surprise, keeps his accent).

After their bank robbery trick, they are tracked by FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (a scruffy Mark Ruffalo), who is tasked with both determining their motive (they appear to keep none of the money from the heist) and proving their guilt. He’s flanked by Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame), flown in from Paris to provide some mystic wisdom to the skeptical Rhodes. Separate from the FBI investigation, Morgan Freeman acts as a former magician who wants to debunk the Horsemen’s illusions so he can produce a television special. He comes off here as equal parts James Randi and the Masked Magician.

As a film about magic, the movie necessarily toys with the themes of illusion and reality. At times, it comes off like a slicker, modern take on The Prestige, the 2006 whodunnit about dueling magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) in fin-de-siècle London. That film mixes in science, to good effect, with Nikola Tesla’s alternating current featuring prominently in the plot. As a viewer, you constantly ask yourself: Is that an illusion? Or is it science?

3-angier-on-stage122-light-field1The Prestige 3

In his highly-readable (if somewhat anticlimactic) book Fooling Houdini, amateur magician Alex Stone writes:

Today we tend to view magic and science as polar opposites, with superstition at one end and rationality at the other. But this is a relatively recent distinction. For centuries, magic and science were widely seen as parallel paths to wisdom. Newton wrote more about the occult than any other subject, while toiling in secret over alchemical tracts that, had they been exposed, would have landed him in prison, because alchemy was deemed satanic by the Church. After his death, the Royal Society stashed away the embarrassing evidence, and for centuries these papers remained hidden, known only to a select few. Rediscovered in the mid-1900s, they reveal the striking extent to which Newton’s laws—the bedrock of physics—were shaped by theories of attraction and repulsion laid out in the alchemical cookbooks of his day. Gottfried Leibniz, coinventor of calculus, got his start as an alchemist in Nuremberg. Robert Boyle, founder of modern chemistry, spent half his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, the legendary substance that turns lead into gold. Jan Baptista van Helmont, the occult philosopher who laid out the first useful theory of gases in the early 1700s, did so through the prism of a profoundly mystical worldview. Practically every great thinker of the scientific revolution was interested in magic.

The Prestige works cinematically because you begin to ask, Has Tesla created magic through science? This thought is similarly at play in every film about time travel, most recently in 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed. Time travel, we know, is impossible. But science is what makes the impossible possible.

Practically every great thinker of the scientific revolution was interested in magic.Alex Stone

So, when the four magicians in Now You See Me rob a bank in Paris, it too prods us to wonder, Have they created some sort of wormhole between Vegas and France? Is their magic real? Unfortunately, the film is just barely interested in asking the question, so it doesn’t bother too much with the answer. It’s more for sleight-of-hand, to ask you to look one way when the answer lies elsewhere.

Given the pedigree of its director, Louis Leterrier, best known for action flicks Clash of the Titans and Transporter 2, it should come as no surprise that Now You See Me‘s existential varnish is just that—varnish. Leterrier remains mostly content to leave philosophy to the side and instead propel us from one set piece to the next by way of canned exposition as we get closer to discovering what exactly is behind the Four Horsemen’s magic. Indeed, the film’s best scene has much more to do with action than magic. With the FBI closing in on the Four Horsemen, Wilder finally gets a chance to put his quick hands routine to work, hog-tieing several agents with their own jackets and/or handcuffs as he escapes. A high speed car chase naturally ensues.

Yet for all its faults, it’s hard to blame the film for being breezy and watchable. It would be like an amazed audience member at a David Copperfield show, tut-tutting the magician after he finds out via Google that Copperfield didn’t actually walk through the Great Wall of China. Magic, like a movie, asks us to suspend disbelief. While it would be nice if magician could also solve all of our ontological questions, what we want most is to allow ourselves enough doubt to ask, What if? We find this process endlessly entertaining, just as we are entertained when the hero and heroine kiss after only 30 minutes of screen time. We know it’s not real, but we like thinking, just for a second, that it could be.

1 Comment Magicians Behaving Badly

  1. Bernardette Kasum

    I saw this movie, and really enjoyed it. Your review made the image of parts of the movie come back to me. I like believing in Magic, it makes me feel good. I always feel that if you have the ability to imagine it, then it can be real. I really liked your review. Thanks


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