The Habitrail Critic Saw What You Did There

When I was a child, I used to enjoy watching big magic events on TV — David Copperfield, Doug Henning, that sort of thing. There was something utterly fascinating about what they did, a kind of flashy romance. The whole larger-than-life Vegas business of it was an undeniable part of the attraction. It made trickery and manipulation into grand spectacle, and it made it somehow feel more like magic.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost that attraction, mostly because I’ve lost any patience I ever might have had with manipulation (whether it be in the form of grand spectacle or usual interpersonal communication). I can appreciate the skill, the real art of these things, but only with some element of discomfort alongside the appreciation. This attitude colors my response to most forms of entertainment, actually — I loathe films that deliberately yank their audiences around (as opposed to providing a good story, which is not the same thing). On the other hand, I do like a good heist caper on film — I like the cleverness, the elegance of the utterly improbable mechanics of these stories. I adore the scope and depth of the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, no matter how impossible it is.

I’ve also noticed (and probably mentioned here) that quite a few recent films have devolved into mere spectacle and have put actual story on the back burner (if they bothered to keep a story going at all).

I mention all of this in order to put my biases out in the open before I tell you that I was truly disappointed by Now You See Me. There was a lot of David Copperfield spectacle here (which is not accidental — if you stay for the credits you’ll discover that the filmmakers built their tricks based on/inspired by his act). There is not, however, a lot of good story to be had. Quips (well delivered by actors who had, to be honest, very little to work with) are made to do all of the heavy lifting for character development. The film feels, honestly, as if three different story ideas had been pitched, and somehow the studio decided to try to get them all in, complete with obligatory twist/reveal. The whole film is really a rabbit box, or some other illusion, which is instantly dispelled once one sees its mechanics. Worse: It’s actually one long camera trick, and the on-screen audience is (as is typical for this sort of Copperfield-style deal) in on the gag. The problem is that the rest of us really already know how this trick works, and one can easily leave the film feeling manipulated rather than entertained.

There’s a brief conversation between two characters in the film in which one does a little card trick for another and asks if he wasn’t entertained rather than manipulated. His answer is noncommittal, perhaps because this  is a question the film itself leaves the audience to answer, and fears what the audience’s answer will be. What his answer should have been, if his character were consistent about his stated views, is that while manipulation and entertainment can and do occur together, they are not identical. The interesting question that the film never asks (even as it hints around it a bit) is this: Why do these tricks entertain? What is their real value? When does a trick cross the line from entertaining to unacceptably manipulative? A film that considered those questions might have been MUCH more interesting, as would one with actual character development.

If you really want to see an interesting movie about the performance of magic, take a look at Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Now You See Me pales in comparison, in spite of a stellar cast and some genuinely fun set pieces, because it is basically shallow spectacle no longer driven by story. I can see an audience finding it entertaining (it’s certainly family-friendly in most respects), but…well. I was hoping for more.

There’s just not enough magic in it.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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