The magic of cinema and the magic of magic tend to cancel each other out. Once you convince someone they're seeing alternate realities, alien conquerers, and distant futures, pulling a rabbit out of a hat looks a little underwhelming. It is a cruel, sad truth that a single cut negates all the impact of the greatest act of sleight of hand.

So, a movie about magic needs to be about more than just magic. The silly but not entirely unpleasurable 'Now You See Me' is about showmanship. There are a lot of good actors in this movie, including Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Melanie Laurent, and Mark Ruffalo. They play illusionists, mentalists, hucksters, debunkers, billionaire industrialists, Interpol officers, and FBI agents, respectively(ish). All of them, no matter whether they're wool-pullers or wool-pullees, look like they're having a grand old time misdirecting us through a labyrinthine plot involving magicians, bank heists, and decades-old vendettas. For a while, the fun is infectious. I found myself chuckling at the outrageous character names -- Dylan Rhodes! Jack Wilder! Arthur Tressler! Thaddeus Bradley! J. Daniel Atlas! -- and grinning at the ludicrous twists. Like a mark at a good magic act, I knew I was being worked over and was enjoying every second.

A brief prologue brings together a new magic act, "The Four Horsemen" -- Eisenberg's Atlas, Harrelson's Merritt Osbourne, Fisher's Henley Reeves, and Dave Franco's Wilder -- all puppet-mastered by a mysterious benefactor in a handsome gray hoodie. In a seductively charming performance, the Horsemen seemingly rob a bank in France from the stage of Las Vegas' MGM Grand. When the Parisian bank opens their vault in the morning and finds it short millions of Euros, the Horsemen are the only suspects, and they're promptly arrested by a cranky, skeptical G-Man, Ruffalo's Agent Rhodes.

Charging the magicians with a crime would mean conceding magic was real -- so the Horsemen are released, and begin plotting their next scheme. Way out of his depth, Rhodes recruits former magician turned magic-trick-explainer Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) to help him get to the bottom of this baffling case. In another lively sequence, Freeman drolly debunks the France heist -- but he and Ruffalo quickly realize that figuring out the Horsemen's ultimate plan is harder to decipher. And so 'Now You See Me' follows Rhodes and his team (including Laurent as a plucky new Interpol agent) around the country, watching assorted magic tricks and getting fooled time and again by the magicians.

The tricks are, well, they're magic on film, which, again, is never particularly exciting. And all the principals are magicians, not to be trusted, so character development goes right out the window (in retrospect, the feeble attempts to build some romantic tension between Eisenberg and Fisher are laughable). All there is to enjoy is style, atmosphere, and showmanship.

Which these actors certainly have. Eisenberg, still in 'The Social Network' lovable a--hole mode, and Harrelson, still in 'Zombieland' lovable a--hole mode, have just the right air of smarm for big-time magicians. And Ruffalo is oddly likable as a government mook befuddling his way through a plot he's too cantankerous to even attempt to understand. At one point, Eisenberg's Daniel says that magic is "deception designed to delight." In its best moments, so is 'Now You See Me.'

The big problem is overload. At just under two hours, that is a lot of twists and tricks and fake-outs and bemused Morgan Freeman explanation monologues to sit through. Eventually the Horsemen's charm starts to wear thin, and so does a movie built entirely on exhaustingly detailed exposition. I spent most of the last act wishing director Louis Leterrier didn't have quite so many tricks up his obvious magic metaphors (on the plus side, he does bring a certain guy-who-made-'Transporter' flair to the concept of a magician in a fist fight with a non-magician).

Eisenberg's Daniel also says that the closer you look at a magic trick, the less you see. It almost feels too obvious to note that the same holds true of 'Now You See Me,' which is such a trifle that it completely falls apart under even the slightest bit of scrutiny. The plot is insane, the morals are wacky, and despite the overwhelming amount of time spent explaining everything, the big third act twists still don't make a whole lot of sense. But let's give Leterrier the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant Daniel's instructions for us. Let's assume he's telling us to simply stand back and admire the sheer chutzpah of the apparatus, and the gusto of the performance. On that level, at least, I am willing to give him a round of applause.


'Now You See Me' opens in theaters on May 31.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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