“Magicians who pull off heists” might sound like a particularly desperate movie pitch, but there’s a certain cracked logic to it. Don’t both endeavors—the performance of a trick, the successful execution of a big score—require an element of misdirection? Isn’t there comparable pleasure to be had in peering behind the curtain of these wildly different vocations, of seeing how the masters of the two trades work their magic? Now You See Me, which is essentially an Ocean’s movie recast with illusionists, demands a kind of childlike fascination with swindles, and a willingness to be hoodwinked along with the characters. Walk in with those expectations and it won’t be hard to see the appeal of this ludicrous but spirited caper, which has nearly as many rug-pulls as game movie stars.
The film begins in full Ocean’s mode, individually introducing its roster of virtuosos: Jesse Eisenberg as a celebrity prestidigitator, conjuring a cockiness unseen since The Social Network; a typically boisterous Woody Harrelson, blessed with hypnosis powers only slightly less improbable than the ones on display in Trance; escape artist Isla Fisher, who makes her splashy debut pretending to be consumed by a tank of piranhas; and Dave Franco, in the Matt Damon role, as a rookie pickpocket. Once assembled, this trickster supergroup pulls off its first hit, somehow robbing a bank in Paris from a stage in Vegas, and then showering the audience with the ill-gotten gains. Mark Ruffalo’s peeved FBI agent spends most of the movie in hot pursuit, stuck with the unenviable task of making a case against the “Four Horsemen,” and the enviable task of resisting the charms of Interpol detective Mélanie Laurent. Meanwhile, in an unofficial Dark Knight reunion, Michael Caine’s wealthy benefactor and Morgan Freeman’s magic-debunker trade classy putdowns.
Speaking of Christopher Nolan movies, just about the only thing Now You See Me has in common with The Prestige is an opening instruction to pay close attention. (Eisenberg’s insistence that great tricks come down to what’s happening right in front of the audience’s faces will pay off with an absurd final twist so enormous it might be worth watching the movie a second time just to see how it plays with foreknowledge.) As if elaborate, mentalism-abetted robberies weren’t enough, French director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) pulls a car chase and a mano-a-mano brawl from his usual bag of tricks. He also resorts to CGI for some of the onstage showmanship, which seems a bit like cheating. Moving so quickly its flaws barely register—the blockbuster equivalent of sleight-of-hand—Now You See Me fares best when simply relying on the no-illusions chemistry between its leads. In a summer already heavy with artillery, there’s something almost magical about a popcorn movie built around light rapport, even if the words the actors are spitting are about as deep as “Abracadabra.”
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Now You See Me's Spoiler Space.