In a summer blockbuster season of apocalypses and lame father/son odysseys, Now You See Me is a nice surprise. It's lighthearted and never boring; if I had kids, I wouldn't worry that taking them to see this film would make them stupider, and that's saying a lot.
We begin with a group of magicians called "The Four Horsemen" who have been selected by an anonymous benefactor to put on a series of incredibly elaborate and highly illegal magic shows that double as bank heists, embezzlements and all other manners of making it rain on their audience, because screw banks and rich old men! Really, this is as deep as the moral justification gets, but I feel like we're all fine with it.
There is J. Daniel Atlas, played by Jesse Eisenberg, as a magician who was probably a nerd in high school until he figured out that magic tricks and just a hint of facial hair would go a long way toward sleeping with women later in life. Next is Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), the mentalist who uses a combination of body language, intuition, suggestion, hypnotism and misdirection to blackmail unsuspecting Vegas vacationers. Harrelson stands out among the horsemen. He's become one of those actors who never gives a bad performance and so it is here. Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) daringly escapes from piranha-infested tanks and used to be Daniel's assistant. She's pretty but not astoundingly so; I totally believe her as a magician. Finally, James Franco's younger and just-if-not-more handsome brother Dave plays Jack Wilder, the street magician who uses botched tricks as a distraction for pick pocketing.
Much of the movie belongs to the seemingly bumbling detectives assigned to take down the magicians/sophisticated money embezzlers. Mark Ruffalo plays Dylan Rhodes, who spends much of the time several steps behind the horsemen. He is confused and occasionally drunk, but his foibles are adorable and it's not like anybody is siding with the feds in this story. He is joined by French Interpol agent Alma Dray, played by Mélanie Laurent (surely you'll recognize her as the incorrigible Shosanna from Inglourious Basterds). Dylan and Alma like each other but have a job to do, and when the case takes its many twists and turns, it's all, "Who can you really trust?" In the interrogation room, the mentalist McKinney calls their meeting a "first date," and it's so cute. Is there any scene Harrelson can't make better?
If you're curious, the best film ever made about magic is The Prestige from 2006, directed by Christopher Nolan. It explores themes similar to those in Now You See Me, like the amount of planning and obsession a magician endures to pull off the perfect trick, the desire to move beyond illusion into real magic, etc. Now You See Me isn't nearly as good as Nolan's film, but it's not a fair comparison. This is like criticizing every novel written because it's not on par with Nabokov's Lolita.
Morgan Freeman shows up as a shiesty opportunist to explain how the tricks are done. Lifting the veil is fun and helpful, but he's miscast, I think. We don't buy him as a bad guy and there's no joy in seeing his comeuppance. There's some real illusion at work here, but much of it is CGI impossible, and the entire grand scheme taken as a whole could never, ever work. Teleportation is an astounding trick, for example, and this movie treats it like it's nothing. Just try not to overthink how (or why, for that matter) four magicians managed to perfectly choreograph a car chase on a busy bridge in New York City and you'll have a good time.
Now You See Me continues at the Carmike 12 and Village 6.