With its cool jazzy music, its glamorous Las Vegas setting, and its wisecracking camaraderie among slightly shady characters, Now You See Me is a high-spirited and stylish homage to (some might say “knock-off” of) the successful Ocean’s Eleven franchise.
The film begins as the Ocean’s movies do, with a quick introduction to the characters who will be gathered for a heist. Each is a highly-skilled street magician with moderately suspect morals; each uses magic tricks not only to entertain, but in some cases to shake down or rip off the audience. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist who blackmails his targets with information he gleans while they are hypnotized. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a magician who picks his audience’s pockets. Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) uses his mystique as a magician to woo women. And Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is Danny’s former assistant who wants to headline her own act.
When each of these magicians receives a Tarot card with an address and a date written on the back, they team up under the direction of a mysterious, unidentified leader. Billing themselves as The Four Horsemen, they perform magic tricks that test the boundaries of what we know about magic (that it’s all illusion) and what we hope about magic (that it’s real). For example, they select an unsuspecting dupe from the audience, slap a helmet camera onto his head, and whisk him magically to a bank vault in Paris, where he deposits the obligatory (for magic tricks) playing card with his signature on it in exchange for all the money. Moments later, 3 million euros are seen swirling up out of the vault and raining down into the Las Vegas audience. It isn’t possible. It has to be an illusion. And yet — the bank vault in Paris is empty. And the dupe’s signature is on the card.
A skillful director is like a skillful magician, packing the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story.
Showy tricks like this drive the film as the crew moves from venue to venue all over the country, with audiences massing for the money they expect to receive. We don’t know what the ultimate heist is, and neither do the magicians, because The Horsemen are guided by the unidentified stranger who has brought them together. They also have to stay one step ahead of the law, as FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) pursue them for the bank job, leading us to enjoy many entertaining cons, chases, and escape tricks.
Also following The Four Horsemen is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes his living by secretly videotaping magic shows from his seat in the audience and then selling DVDs debunking the tricks. Citing a character in the film who is supposed to be the world’s highest-paid magician, Thaddeus cynically explains, “He makes $1.6 million a year performing magic. I earn $5 million a year telling people how he does it.” But Thaddeus is in it for more than the money; his resentment toward magicians runs deep, so he helps Rhodes and Dray chase the magical thieves by enabling them to anticipate the Horsemen’s next move.
This is all entertaining and interesting. The reflections it kindles may be even more interesting. Magic is an apt metaphor for moviemaking. A skillful director is like a skillful magician. He or she packs the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story. With a magic show, we want to be astonished. We want to believe that anything is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted in order for a trick to be performed, but we go along with it because the sensation of being amazed is so satisfying. With movies, we also enter a world in which seeing is believing. We suspend our disbelief and accept whatever the director wants us to believe is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted, and we try to catch the trick — to figure out who the bad guy really is, or in this case who the mastermind is — but what we really want is not to figure it out until the very end. Amazement trumps knowing it all, every time. And that’s one thing we mean when we discuss the art of cinema.