RIORI Vol 3, Installment 53: Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” (2013)

Now You See Me

The Players…

Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, with Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.

The Story…

Taking a cue from Robin Hood, master magician J Daniel Atlas and his troupe of illusionists specialize in robbing from the rich—eg: banks to big to fail—and giving to the poor—erm, their audiences. And all the while trying to outwit the FBI agents determined to bring them down and all their hocus pocus.

The Rant…

“The world wants to be deceived.”

PT Barnum said that. To a large extent Hollywood took his notion and ran with it. Occasionally too far.

Saving my trademark salivating and snarling for…well, later, let’s take a practical look into the Hollywood entertainment complex and its machinations. Hollywood is based on deception. For real. En toto. They create stories that are (mostly) fabrications and flights of fancy. Actors are really nothing more than well-trained, well-paid liars. All that CGI sh*t you cream in your jeans over in The Force Awakens? Not there, Luke. Never was. Use the Force somewhere else. Oh yeah, that trick ain’t real neither. Sorry to pop your balloon.

Movies are nothing but two things: entertainment and deception. One might preclude the other, then again…well, later. And boy howdy, do we movie audiences f*cking love to be deceived. We have to be. We want to be. How else could one explain away the jillions of dollars the moviemakers toss around like so many platinum frisbees? All that cheddar better get recouped somehow. Hopefully with a winning hit (which are fast becoming few and far between these days) that’ll perpetuate the movie magic machine. Even a craptastic Adam Sandler flick—which may be a redundancy—that “tanks” still invites enough interest in the great, popcorn-dappled masses to get on Fandango for the advance release of Billy Madison 2: The College Years.

Slow down. That one doesn’t exist. Yet.

As Barnum put it, we want to have the wool pulled over our eyes. We pay our fee, walk into the theatre/rent that disc/stream that movie, suspend our beliefs and off we go into a 100-minute storytime wonderland with a cool plot, nifty acting and/or the occasional dinosaur rampage. All three if you’re lucky. Most of the time, we wanna go catch the pictures for fun and escape. Escape from our boring dinosaur-less lives and be deceived that Chris Pratt can really run that fast. It’s all in fun, it’s all a lie and that’s how we want it. So does Hollywood, so bless (and often curse) them for their tentpole endeavors and finally giving Ryan Reynolds a suitable role exploiting his sophomoric acting chops.

All of that was praise. I think.

As deemed by this blog, a great deal of movie fans drop down a lot of cash annually to be deceived. Often they walk away hoodwinked. These two things are not one and the same. You’ve heard me enough times bemoan the fact that Tinsel Town is nothing but money grubbing, more cash for less art and all of us sheep dutifully march into the lion’s den blindfolded wearing overalls made of pork. A significant amount of the time this is true, but it never stops the (disgruntled) patrons from coming back for more. Why?

Because the lies that are the movies are so much more interesting, sometimes engaging than our daily slog. After a hard, long week at your job, be it fighting fires, shipping out goodies from the local Amazon warehouse or putting spindles in boxes all the while cursing your high school guidance counselor, going out Friday and catching a flick is always a good tonic. We all can’t vault off to the Bahamas, but we can watch Batman duke it out with Superman. In a certain light the latter is far better. The Bahamas actually exist. Come to think of it why has “dinner and a movie” been the go to date for generations? Because it works. Dinner and a show. Comfort. One part real and the other a lie. Balance, and don’t we need more of that in our fractured lives?

Of course. Moviegoers embrace the lie because the alternative is the timeclock. Barnum knew this. Hollywood knows this. Hell, you know this. It’s the reason why we go see sequels. It’s why ILM exists, and spends its largesse on community projects. It’s why Brad Pitt makes more per film than the GDP of Belize. We need these lies, if only to counterbalance the truths of our unglamorous lives. It’s mental survival in a sense.

To wrap up this kooky, little intro let me tug on your coat a bit again about how we need the lie, the deception of movies. When I was a teen I got hip to James Bond movies. That’s some escapism there, my friend. Action, exotic locales, hot babes, cool tech, funny one-liners, villians you love to hate, nutty world domination plots and our suave 007 at the heart of all the madness. Whenever I felt crummy, I popped a Bond film into the player. Every time I believed the lie, from Connery to Moore to even Craig today and away I went. Bond got to do all this cool sh*t while driving a flash car that sported a flamethrower, kung fu-ing the girl would would later he’d be smooching and literally getting away with murder. He had a license to kill! Later on me and my married friends wondered where we could acquire such a license.

Kidding. Sorta. But again about the deception, next to nothing in the Bond films was/is very plausible (checked in on that license thing on the Black Internet. Zilch, but I now own the prototype Juno probe. Took what I could get), but that’s the point. The utter outlandishness of the films enhanced my need for cinematic lying. These days I’m not as impressionable, but the lie still works on me. As it does you. And thank heavens for it.

Now then, onto this week’s lie. And watch my hands as they never leave my wrists…

Prestidigitation. Know what that means? Sleight of hand. And that means? Legerdemain. Um, and that?

Fast fingers. Quick on your feet. Slick. Knowingly practical at deception. In other words, it’s how magicians make a living. Foolin’ ya.

J Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) is a master of this deceitful craft. As are his ex Henley (Fisher), a glammy escape artist, Merritt (Harrelson), a self-described mentalist (whatever that is) and Jack (Franco) the greatest pickpocket since the Artful Dodger. Together they tout their act as The Four Horsemen, and are Vegas-level magicians extraordinare.

Lately, despite their sold out shows, Atlas and crew have an itch they can’t scratch. It’s not the next big act to pluck. They need a bigger rush. Make their theatrics more…homespun. Sure, they can hypnotize, mesmerize, spin and twirl, but card tricks and chained to the tracks can only go so far in the shock and awe department. Atlas thinks it’s high time to bring his circus to the masses, minus tickets.

Fast forward. On multiple occasions, and around the globe, the moneychangers find their vaults raided if not emptied. And for every one of the Horseman’s shows, audience members suddenly find themselves in the black, as if by…well, you know.

FBI agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) and his team do not take kindly to a bunch of high-end birthday party entertainers robbing millions and pissing it away on strangers. How can this be happening? How can this be real? And why the hell ex-magician cum Penn And Teller clone Thad Bradley (Freeman) constantly hounding Rhodes on misdirection?

Could it be the Four Horseman’s crimes aren’t truly crimes? Is there more than meets the eye? What’s up with the Robin Hood gimmick? Where the f*ck did all that money go? Will Bradley ever leave Rhodes alone?

All of this and maybe if Rhodes is able to unlock the mystery…

I like magic tricks. I like going “Huh” and “Whoa!” and “How’d he do that?”

Last year at Bethlehem, PA’s Musikfest while waiting for a show to start, me, the wifey and the kid happened upon a street performer, one of many many. He was a magician/comedian/contortionist who looked like Screech and dressed like Richard Simmons. His jokes went that way, too. Regardless of his endearing, self-deprecating schtick the guy did demonstrate some great tricks. Some were explicable (like uncurling himself from a toilet seat, which had to hurt) and some weren’t (like swallowing and entire, fully inflated ballon with nary a pop). We three were delighted, and came back the next night to see him perform again. Alas, he had moved on.


Which I how I ended up not liking Now You See Me much. It’s endgame was not “Cool!” and more like “What the hell?” Then I scratched my head, and not because of the nits.

*blogger now considers taking the cards so close to his chest and tossing them into the Cuisinart for good*

Don’t misunderstand me. For the first act I found Now exciting and fun. Sure, it was in a fast and loose, cheap kinda fun, but it was about rogue magicians! What’s not to dig?

Well, trying to keep up such a pace—or with such a pace—got rather exhausting. You know how when you see a magician perform and you’re hyper-vigilant in your gaze? You wanna catch him in the act and always fail? That’s how I felt watching Now‘s progression. At first, the movie’s rapid fire pacing was easy to follow. I thank the music. But over the next hour-plus I felt that either I should be part of the ADHD Millenial generation or in need of a Red Bull injection to my femoral artery. Both maybe. I know I claim by this movie buff that pacing either makes or breaks a picture. With Now, I never felt so dizzy or exhausted by such breakneck speed of plot. In reflection, the film’s whirlwind pace might’ve played into the entire subterfuge schtick of the alpha plot. I’d like to believe that. Until I can stop my head from spinning long enough to maybe accept this idea, get me a bucket.

That was my only real significant grievance (but not the last) with Now; the sh*t came down so fast and furious I had precious little time to digest what was happening. I like a little wiggle room with my movies to, I don’t know, absorb and appreciate what I’m watching. Didn’t get breathing room with Now. I know director Leterrier made his mark in frenetic action films (and I dug his Incredible Hulk flick pretty good), but I think his manic delivery was his undoing here. We got a film about magic tricks wrapped around a mystery with a chewy center involving revenge. It’s all a mystery, and we need some oxygen to search out the damned mystery’s clues. Not gonna happen here. Gotta give Gen Z the Pop Rocks enema before selfie number 17 in front of the soda machine in the lobby gets on Snapchat.

Call me bitter. I dare you.

Anyway. As cool as the concept was, and the hook had me I realized at the 45-minute mark that Now‘s plot made little sense. The Four Horsemen’s shows were both stage and show and had an urgency to create financial ruin for those who invited it. Fine. Why? There was a warped Maguffin dropped at the film’s outset, but so little was offered it made this guy confused for too long watching this movie. Again, I assume it might have had something to do with the underlying “not is all that is seems” theme. I still was rendered unsure. It’s a sweet paradox, makes you think too much.

The other day at work my boss was trying to bamboozle a co-worker with the classic “Schrodinger’s Cat” riddle. After confusing the other guy he asked me, “Hey, is the cat over here or over there?”

I answered yes. I think I won a prize. The tickets stopped rolling in for a full minute.

This wonky example pretty much describes the plot progression of Now. Is the movie good? Yes, until it’s not. And when it’s not, recall when it was good and hang on to that until the film’s not good again. It’ll approach sense in the next scene. I need an Advil. Another Red Bull might help, too.

What was the best part of Now was our ensemble cast. I’ve been trying to steer clear of waxing rhapsodic about a flick’s acting for the past few installments, I know. But we got us an ensemble cast here, littered with myriad talents that have no sane reason for being in a movie together. So cut me slack at bit, please? Thanks.

So then, I’ll break a promise. Does Eisenberg have to play skittish in all his roles? Some sort of contractual obligation? Despite or thanks to his signature twichiness Eisenberg’s delivery as Atlas was prime magician role incarnate. Smartass and always knowing the game was afoot three paces ago (mostly because it was his footprints). His Atlas was also not very likable. Sleazy and very obvious in being into his gig to only serve his own ends. As much as I enjoy magicians, they are a shady lot. Atlas was shady, but also a bit more than cocky. Ostensibly he was the villain in Now‘s rogues’ gallery, and I must admit that a greasy adversary does a good crime caper make.

Lesser can be said of Fisher and James’ little bro. Both were mostly wallpaper. Henley’s job was to look good (which she did) and Jack’s job was to be raffish (and look good, which he did. Don’t judge me). I understood the need for a team of tricksters to pull off their heists. We gotta have various facets of a hive mind to better understand—despite the difficulty—the motives behind the crime. Sure, plenty of crime capers have involved a single mastermind…wait, they don’t. There’s always a holy host of miscreants shouting at each other to establish motive and possible outcome (usually bad). Think Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects or even Heist. Myriad weirdoes wending and winding around each other to find their quarry as well as accusing each other about who scored said quarry before the other guys did. Fisher and Franco were merely distractions, and possibly elements of the whole misdirection theme of the movie. Maybe. Mostly I found the two superfluous, and nowhere approaching Mr Pink.

Harrelson was me. Moving on.

Lastly the pinion on which Now spins, Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes (a name that irked me for some reason). I’ve never seen the guy ham it up so much as I did here. It was tough to divorce myself from his  performance in Zodiac‘s Det Tocchi to let in the manic agent Rhodes. Right to the quick Ruffalo’s Captain Kirk-like scenery chewing was unlike anything I saw the guy do before in any of his roles. It was rather annoying, yet compelling. Again the misdirection thing, which came to an abrupt resolution in a fast, forced, final fifteen minutes (pretty good alliteration there, huh?) was likely the reason for Ruffalo to act so damned crazy. I got tired of his determined cop schtick right quick since it was made up of a dozen different determined cop schticks I’ve seen over the years. Then again, maybe the guy was just having some fun. But at my expense and winnowing attention span.

The rest of Now, since the meat of the show has been flayed, dribbles down into tedium. The fast paced first act? Well the next few were so jacked up on the Mountain Dew I had precious little time to enjoy the stunts, tricks and Fisher’s low cut blouses. I kept feeling like I was falling behind, misdirection theme be damned. When watching a magician pull their trade there has to be a small space left to breathe, you know, to absorb and then appreciate the trick. Rampant collateral damage and warp-speed editing can throttle you. Did with me. Cough.

And in defiance of Now‘s lightspeed pacing, the movie began to feel stretching. There was a lot of info dump at work, and over the course of two hours no matter how quick the action was there felt like a great deal of plot development was both rushed (to maintain the film’s rapid fire action) and sluggish (to reflect for a little to long via exposition, to keep the audience in the know). If Now was supposed to be a kinda Robin Hood tale then for what end? You can’t just rob and pillage for the sake of the story and expect to hang up abruptly to consider why. It got jarring towards the end, and ultimately made for an exhausting viewing experience. In sum, regardless of the quick pacing Now ended up stretching. It became a slow crawl to get to the heart of the “real” story, whatever it was.

Now, Now‘s biggest crime in my opinion is what has been used prior in other, more satisfying crime capers (eg: again The Usual SuspectsSe7en and to a degree Fight Club): explaining the motives as well as the tricks used against you to f*ck with your head. You don’t just explain eeverything. At least in one, lethal does. Now tries to make up for all its trickery in a rapid clip expo that should’ve taken a half an hour in maybe, oh, twenty seconds. That deal completely undid the f*cking entirety of the movie’s raison d’etre. If this was a film about deceiving the deceived, wouldn’t it have been more fair to let in a little light here and there so that us brave few that still have a Twitter-less attention span could deduce what might have been happening? Maybe then a full explanation about the past few of your precious little 90 minutes would be necessary. Me? I like to come to my own conclusions on my own time. Makes for a more satisfying movie watching experience. I graduated from spoon fed Gerber at least since senior year.

Damn. Here was a movie I should’ve liked. Instead I got fed tedium and fatigue. A fast paced movie nonetheless! Now had a lot to offer and enjoy, but after watching it I felt wasted and in need of Vivarin and some thumbing through Houdini’s bio with a highlighter with the crew of Hardball at my defense. Put plainly a movie about magic should not hoodwink the audience by waiting for the sleight of hand to. Take. It. Down. A few. Notches.

Now sleep!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Trickery can only go far, even within Hollywood deception. The Four Horsemen used their magic to make money disappear? Where’d my 100 minutes go, huh?

Stray Observations…

  • “Too many French people in that room.”
  • Strangest post-Katrina fund raiser I’ve ever seen.
  • “I like squirrels. I’m not a frat guy.” Sounds like a confession to me.
  • That’s how I take my coffee, plus three sugars.
  • They had to kiss.

Next Installment…

A trip to London could be a new chance at love for Last Chance Harvey.

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