Abiding here as I do in the wastes of Nordor, exiled from even the kingdom's most paltry pleasures in the hilly fastnesses of the Hidden City, I rarely have to contend with the luxury of choice. Either there's one movie which is not outright craptastic, or there's nothing at all, and I retire to the third floor operations room with an improving book, or the list of people I've unaccountably not got round to schwacking yet, whichever seems most likely to while away the evening.
So it was an unfamiliar sensation to have to pick between entertainments this evening. Now You See Me, or Despicable Me 2? The hardheaded decision was to remember that this is the Hidden City fleapit, mental age eleven, and that a cartoon was more likely to run a second week. About five minutes into the movie, I kind of wished I'd flipped the coin the other way, because Now You See Me showed early signs of being the kind of movie I'd enjoy watching in Dublin with someone I like. Sadly, it sort of blew that early promise, but I still had fun.
The best scene in the movie - for me anyhow - is right at the beginning, where we're meeting the magical wing of the cast. Woody Harrelson has three minutes of glory hypnotising a middle-aged wife, then mind-reading her husband to figure out he's had a fling with his sister in law before shaking him down for $250 to keep quiet about it, and then using some more hypnotism to make the wife forget all she's heard. Hypnotism.Does.Not.Work.That.Way, but it's awesome because Woody sells it, and because it's pitched perfectly; small scale, kind of vindictive, but still a nifty kind of rough justice. If the whole movie had pitched itself that low, Now You See Me could have been a minor classic. It had the players to make it work, heaven knows. Instead, they went high concept and big budget, and I got a fun movie which makes me feel almost guilty for wanting it to be something else.
The high concept is that four streetwise magicians reinvent themselves as Vegas headliners as part of a much bigger scam to rob banks and generally Robin Hood around the place. The big headline magic is great to watch, but is all too obviously stuff which no stage act could ever do; you're not wondering how they did it, just shrugging at yet more CGI standing in for impact. And parts of this plot are nicely done; I really enjoyed a moment in the third act when it becomes clear that they have no idea what they're doing, which nicely undercuts the strutting showmanship we've been watching up to now. Like all big twisty revenge plots, there's a reveal at the end which makes a nonsense of almost everything we've seen up to then, but it's fun while it lasts.
Some of the stunts and action are nifty - there's a car chase in the middle which was bound to work considering the movie is being directed by the guy who made The Transporter, a consideration which also applies to a borderline slapstick fight scene earlier in the movie. And although the magic isn't plausible magic, there's a moment when Isla Fisher's character is drifting above the stage in a soap bubble which is pure spectacle despite being palpably fake.
Still, most of why it works is the actors. The four magicians; hmm. Woody Harrelson is great, and has a role which lets him talk, but the other three don't get that much to do. I always, rather unfairly, think of Isla Fisher as the Canadian Amy Adams. Jesse Eisenberg, apart from that one time in Zombieland, is a little bit too good at playing smart jerks. And Dave Franco appears to be guesting from a TV show. The real work is being done by the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and best of all Melanie Laurent. Laurent was magical in Inglorious Basterds, but it was startling to see just how much she got done here with the kind-of-underwritten role of "chick from Interpol who might be in on the conspiracy but probably isn't". It's crazy that she isn't in all the movies, all the time. I spent a lot of the movie just waiting for her to come back on and smoulder a bit more. It was a constant reminder of the movie I wished they'd made instead, with less money and lower stakes and more heart.
PS: If you don't mind spoilers and you do want to read a much funnier takedown of the whole moronic plot, I couldn't possibly have done better than this