Isla Fisher: Now You See Me (2013)
By Mark Abraham· Sep 10, 2013
Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of all the stupid shit that this movie pretends is super shocking.
I’ve mentioned this before, but while I want to like Mark Ruffalo—because there are several things I really like him in—I’ve never quite been able to. I think that’s because there’s a gap between his appearances in crap like View From the Top and Rumor Has It—appearances I’d normally chalk up as paycheck features except that…well, see the next clause of this very sentence—and his tendency to yammer on about his “craft.” It’s the same shit Jessica Chastain is always shoveling—which, I don’t mean to single her out; it’s more that actors life Ruffalo and Chastain seem to have internalized the self-validating rhetoric of the ’70s—except that thus far she’s managed to avoid doing a shitty movie like In the Cut. Which makes it more palatable when she brings up “the craft,” is my point, because thus far she’s writing checks she can actually cash. Even fallow shit like 13 Going on 30 or Just Like Heaven, both of which I love, scrape against Ruffalo’s self-proclaimed thespianism. This is a minor thing: I don’t hate him for it, and I don’t not enjoy his performances where they’re really great, and maybe it’s true that I’ve just caught the wrong interviews with him, but he always seems so damn self-serious, y’know? I want actors to take their craft seriously, but the moment an actor uses that particular turn of phrase—“my craft,” or “the craft”—it sounds, to me, like they’re insincerely trying to ping the part of everybody’s brain that studied Shakespeare in high school. I want artists to talk about how they take artistry seriously; not just that they take artistry seriously. Like, dude: you were great in The Avengers, and Blindness, and You Can Count on Me, but I’m not sweating how hard it must be for you to be a working actor. Plus: View from the Top, right?
I mention this because never before has my impression of Ruffalo so soured a movie as it did with Now You See Me. Which…the movie would have sucked regardless, so its failure isn’t on Ruffalo, but the gap between his acting and his script choices is awkwardly front and center in this film. This is because the twist of Now You See Me is that his character, F.B.I. agent and long-term revenge planner Dylan Rhodes, turns out to have been the puppet master behind a series of crimes enacted by the Four Horsemen, a group of magicians, that are the basis of the movie’s plot. Except Rhodes turns out to have been said puppet master despite the fact that he spends the movie investigating said crimes and interrogating the Four Horsemen about their roles enacting them and getting beaten up by the Four Horsemen as he chases them through Las Vegas and New Orleans and New York City. It doesn’t sit well as a plot point—for starters, it’s an utterly stupid revelation, but more importantly: in order to disguise the twist Rhodes acts overly inquisitive and shocked and dismayed about a variety of events that it eventually turns out he wanted to have happen all along, which is especially vexing since nobody, including the Four Horsemen, suspects him and there’s no compelling reason for him to be working so hard to conceal his true motives—but Ruffalo’s choice to play Rhode’s inquisitiveness and shock and dismay absolutely straight further exacerbates the issue. There’s no nuance at all. Like, if this were a television show I’d assume Ruffalo hadn’t been let in on the twist until after some of this had already been filmed; presumably, though, he read the whole script when he signed on.
Maybe not, I guess? I mean, how else do you explain this particular coterie of actors—including Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman—all signing up for this shit? Common and Dave Franco I get; they’ll take work wherever they can get it, especially when it puts them in the orbit of a Caine or a Freeman or a Harrelson. Maybe even Laurent gets a pass, since while she’s rightly praised for her work in Inglourious Basterds and Beginners she hasn’t exactly gotten the Jessica Chastain treatment by American filmmakers (possibly ‘cause Jessica Chastain stole her career?). And Freeman, okay, fine: who can explain anything he does anymore?
I haven’t mentioned Jesse Eisenberg, who I don’t really love in anything, so that’s another issue, I guess. Eisenberg is best when he’s playing a doofus, like in Zombieland or Adventureland; the problem is that I always get the sense that he wants to play a dick, like he did to some effect in Social Network and here to…much less effect. He’s bad, though I guess he can’t be blamed too much, since the other problem this film about magicians has is that it is barely about the magicians, since understanding their motivations—or, rather, their lack thereof, since the only reason they do any of the things they do is because Rhodes has anonymously promised them entry into some weird magic club that exists inside the centrifugal force of a Central Park carousel—would erase their red herringness. Of course, Now You See Me is less a film of red herrings than it is a red herring as a film, so instead of focusing on the magician criminals—i.e. the actually interesting characters—it instead focuses on Rhodes (who is secretly the real mastermind) and Laurent’s Alma Dray (whom Rhodes keeps unnecessarily accusing of being the real mastermind) struggling to catch the barely-onscreen criminals, and the result is utter boredom. And the weirdest part, I guess, is that I don’t get why. Normally when a film is this…compromised, you can sort of tell where things went wrong, whether that was because of studio notes or rewrites or whatever. But nothing about this film makes any sense. It’s not like magicians are hot shit right now. Are they? Is that why The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was also made this year? Did Criss Angel get famous again and nobody told me? Point being, it’s not even like this shitty movie was hastily constructed solely to capitalize on a fad. Unless it was made to capitalize on a fad that is now a decade old.
Fischer gets shit all to do, which is a real shame. The idea, I thought at the outset, is that Rhodes gathered the Four Horsemen together to exploit their unique skills in order to pull of the various heists that will ultimately lead to a complicated frame job that puts Freeman’s Thaddeus Bradley—an ex-magician who now makes a living explaining the tricks of the magician trade to civilians—in jail, which is revenge for the role one of Bradley’s televisionspecials played in the death of Rhodes’ father. Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas is an illusionist, Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney is a mentalist, and Franco’s Jack Wilder is an expert of sleight of hand and also hand-to-hand combat and parkour and whatever else the film needs. Fischer’s Henley Reeves is presented as an escape artist, I guess, and while I’m sure if you wanted to you could break down the various components of the various heists to explain what parts Reeves contributed to this whole shebang, in practice the film spends a lot of time showing how the talents of the three men contribute to the things they’re doing while Reeves stands around in the background smiling.
And still Fischer is the best thing about the film. Well…maybe Laurent is too, but her role is too compromised and unnecessarily cryptic (in order to maintain the faux-suspicion Rhodes has of Dray being a fifth Horseman). In a weird way, Fischer actually benefits from the lack of screen time the Horsemen get; she spends most of her time engaged in vaguely amusing conversations with Harrelson about what a douche Eisenberg’s character is. Consequently, the lightest parts of this mostly humorless film about magicians committing magical crimes take up about 10 minutes total as McKinney and Reeves flirt obnoxiously in front of Atlas just for the fun of pissing him off, because Atlas is a sexist jackass who exploited Reeves as an assistant for years and makes fun of McKinney’s hypnosis. Fischer is hilarious in these scenes, so of course that’s all ruined when, for no reason, she grabs Eisenberg’s hand in the final scene because now they’re in love or something. It’s like somebody had a checklist of Things That Typically Happen In Movies and was going to fill that shit out no matter what. Anyways, sitting through this dreck isn’t worth it just for Fischer’s screen time, especially with super-serious Ruffalo faux-angsting all over the place and Eisenberg giving his I’m Smarter Than You face such a workout.