The film is about four magicians brought together by a mysterious benefactor, who for a year has been instructing them about one great trick—a kind of heist, really—that will make them simultaneously famous and infamous. Before they’re brought together, the four have varying degrees of individual success: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, of “30 Minutes or Less,” “Rio,” “The Social Network,” and “Zombieland”) is a well-known street performer, with many interested groupies; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, of “Seven Psychopaths,” “The Hunger Games,” “Friends with Benefits,” “2012,” and “Zombieland”) is somewhat of a has-been, famous years ago but now stuck hypnotizing wives of cheating husbands for bribes to keep quiet; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, of “The Great Gatsby,” “Rise of the Guardians,” “Bachelorette,” “Rango,” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic”), formerly Daniel’s assistant, is now throwing underground performances where she cheekily charms drooling male admirers; and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, of “Warm Bodies,” “21 Jump Street,” “Fright Night,” and “Charlie St. Cloud”), the youngest, is just trying to make a name for himself, even though that involves picking skeptics’ pockets.
But they’re barely strangers when they’re brought together by Tarot cards to an apartment in New York City, where blueprints await—blueprints of something big. And then a year later they’re going by the name the Four Horsemen and have their own show in Las Vegas, funded by the extremely wealthy insurance man Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine, of “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “Cars 2,” “Gnomeo & Juliet,” “Inception,” and “The Dark Knight”)—who watches as the four seemingly rob a French bank of millions, distributing it to their awestruck audience.
That little foray into felony catches the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, of “Iron Man 3,” “The Avengers,” “Date Night,” “Shutter Island,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Where the Wild Things Are”) and Interpol officer Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent, of “Beginners”), who bring the Four Horsemen in for questioning but are summarily embarrassed by Daniel’s sleight of hand and Merritt’s mind-reading. Dylan’s and Alma’s only option, then, is to trail the Four Horsemen to their next shows—where they theoretically will be stealing more money—and try to figure out how they’re pulling off this tricks. And for that they turn to magician-turned-magician-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, of “Oblivion,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Dolphin Tale,” “Conan the Barbarian,” and “The Dark Knight”), who has become rich explaining magic tricks on television specials. But if the Four Horsemen keep going, Thaddeus is poised to make millions off of them—and he’s not about to share his analysis of their show with police before making some coin for himself.
And so “Now You See Me” has lots of character motivations to juggle: the Four Horsemen, who don’t necessarily nice like each other but are united in this mysterious quest, receiving orders from someone they don’t even know; Dylan and Alma, the former of whom refuses to learn anything about magic and the latter of whom wonders why he’s so stressed out about this one case; and Arthur and Thaddeus, who eventually face off against each other. Everyone’s working to figure out what the Four Horsemen are going to do before they do it, and so the movie is all about split-second getaways and who’s smarter than whom, allowing Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco to be confident, sneaky, and smug, while Ruffalo and Laurent pout about consistently being one step behind them.
These kinds of movies—where one character stands in for the audience, figuring out what’s happening in the movie at the same pace as the audience (like Ellen Page’s role in “Inception”)—always somewhat put viewers at a disadvantage; we’re constantly playing catch-up. The trade-off, though, is that the finale will be something mind-blowing, worth all your patience and attention. “Now You See Me,” however, doesn’t take audiences fully there. It doesn’t help that the movie’s mythology is clunky and confusing, or that the magic tricks get increasingly and implausibly elaborate, or that Laurent’s, Fisher’s, and Franco’s characters don’t have that much to do. Instead, director Louis Leterrier (of 2010’s “Clash of the Titans”) and writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt want to take us there on iffy CGI, Eisenberg’s smirks, and Ruffalo’s panicked facial expressions alone. It’s not enough, and when “Now You See Me” leaps to a tidy, barely explained conclusion, it feels quite cheap.
There are some good things here: Caine and Freeman, both such experienced actors, work really well when pitted against each other, and the first large-scale trick the Four Horsemen pull off is thrilling enough. But the film, which wants to say something about faith and belief and the usefulness of illusion and the importance of loyalty and family, feels like a series of half-started ideas instead of fully fledged ones. Ultimately, “Now You See Me” doesn’t make a strong case to be seen at all.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.