A cross between The Prestige and The Usual Suspects (souped up with some sly action sequences), Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier's crime comedy about magicians, has a first-rate setup but lacks the punch of anything extraordinary. It aims for the winking smarts of Penn and Teller, but ends up being as routine as a guy making coins appear out of kids' noses at a birthday party.
The brilliant high concept involves four talented magicians -- close-up magic expert J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), his former assistant and now renowned escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), hypnotist and self-proclaimed mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and stealthy pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) -- who each receive an invitation to show up at a particular New York City apartment building on a certain day at an exact time.
They do so, and one year later they have joined forces in an act known as The Four Horsemen, performing to sold-out crowds at a casino owned by millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). When the foursome seemingly swipe millions from a French bank on-stage, The Horsemen come under the suspicion of professional magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) -- who has grown wealthy and famous revealing tricks of the trade -- as well as Detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who is put in charge of the investigation alongside French Interpol official Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).
The heist at the beginning turns out to be just the first step in a master plan for these talented performers, but we in the audience are never sure who is orchestrating it all. At one time or another, almost every character in the film becomes the focus of our suspicions, but time and again a person intones some piece of advice along the lines of, "The closer you look, the less you'll see."
Up to this point, Leterrier had worked exclusively in action flicks -- he helmed Transporter 2 as well as the remake of Clash of the Titans -- and sure enough, there's a well-handled chase through the streets of New Orleans and a notably original hand-to-hand fight between Dylan and Jack that inventively utilizes various magic props. The film certainly has momentum: It feels like it's moving almost all the time, even if about halfway through you get the sneaking suspicion it's not going to end up anywhere interesting.
There is pleasure to be had with actors this talented. Harrelson is consistently amusing as the most con-artist-like of the group, Eisenberg does his smugly superior thing to perfection, Freeman is having a blast playing a character who is himself having a blast, and Ruffalo anchors it all as the intense cop who always seems two or three steps behind his elusive prey.
If only screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Ed Solomon, and Edward Ricourt had thought up some deeper themes for the movie, it might have stuck with the audience. But instead of leaving us awestruck or impressed, the final beats of the story reveal it to be about something routine and mundane. So many pictures about magic focus on the art of misdirection, and while purposeful distraction is certainly a key component to the allure of prestidigitation as well as storytelling, what leaves an audience filled with wonder is the reveal of something seemingly impossible. Now You See Me never comes up with an ending that justifies the incessant misdirections that make up the bulk of the film.