Silver Screen: Now You See Me 1/2*
First, a true story: A standup comedian friend of mine was hosting a show at a small-town bar, and the headliner, a comedy magician, was running late. At almost the last-possible second before he was due onstage, the magician came speeding into the parking lot and hopped out of the car, red-faced and amped up. He proceeded to take a vial of cocaine out of his pocket and snort a line off the hood of his car to get ready for showtime. Just as he took a deep snort, a cop cruised through the parking lot. The police officer immediately got out of the squad car and came to arrest the magician, but before he could, the magician clapped both this hands together, and- presto!- the vial of blow vanished.
The moral of the story: It's pretty hilarious, but of course the guy got arrested anyway.
That tale is pertinent to Louis Leterrier's new puzzlebox thriller Now You See Me, one of the most flagrantly stupid movies in years and an early candidate for Dumbest Movie of Summer 2013. One of the basic premises of the film, about a group of magicians who unite to rob banks and give the money away to audience members at their shows, is that the police cannot arrest them unless they can explain their tricks.
That's far from the most outlandishly brainless turn in this travesty of a would-be blockbuster, which plays like a Christopher Nolan film with a double-digit I.Q. Four poorly rendered, one-note caricatures- smug street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), disgraced mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), former assistant-turned-escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and confidence man Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)- each receive hilariously oblique invitations to a meeting. The crew is assembled by a mystery man who provides them with forehead-slappingly complex instructions for a series of tricks they will perform together onstage as the Four Horsemen. Because as clever as the mystery man is in plotting out impossibly convoluted schemes, he doesn't have much time to work on the group name.
After they perform the first of their promised trilogy of shows, at which millions of dollars are stolen from a French bank and dropped onto the audience like confetti, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to their case along with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). He seeks the aid of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former wandsman who now makes his living debunking other magicians' secrets. All of these disparate elements do come together when at last the identity of the Four Horsemen's ringleader is revealed, but the connections are absurdly intricate, and the big reveal is more like a punchline.
The ostensible fun of Now You See Me is figuring out, or at least being shown, how the magicians pull off these seemingly impossible stunts. The consistently frustrating answer is that of course they could not. None of the gimmicks at play are even remotely within the realm of possibility, as demonstrated by how Leterrier can't even recreate the tricks with practical effects, but must use digital wizardry. Magic on TV is dull enough; phony magic conjured up with computer animation is utterly pointless. In the last month we've seen Chris Pine fight aliens, Robert Downey Jr. fly in an armored suit, and Vin Diesel stop a tank with two cars and a grappling hook. So, no, that card trick you just digitally created is not impressive.
Now You See Me's half-assed attempt at tapping into the cultural ire over big bank scandals comes off like a crass attempt to contemporize an idea that would be pathetic in any era. It's an insult on top of an insult on top of an insult from a film that not only has no faith in the audience's intelligence, but which seems predicated on the notion that they won't think anything through. Now You See Me? Not if you're lucky. Better try disappearing from the theater and magically reappearing in whatever theater is showing Star Trek.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.