Filmmaking and magic ask much the same thing of their respective audiences: we know they aren’t “real,” but we willingly pretend as though they are in order to engage our sense of wonder. Certainly, cinema is capable of leveraging such engagement to achieve a far greater impact on people than a simple card trick is, but often that’s not the objective. To invoke an example featuring one of the leads of “Now You See Me”: Isn’t the pleasure we take in watching Mark Ruffalo transform from Bruce Banner into the gargantuan, emerald Hulk in “The Avengers” very similar to that which we derive from a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Both are mere illusions, but each rely on a conceit (be it CGI effects or a cottontail up the magician’s sleeve) about which we happily forget the mechanics in order to be dazzled.
Recognizing this commonality between the two forms of entertainment, the trio of screenwriters of “Now You See Me” (Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt) and director Louis Leterrier combine them for maximum effect. Not only are the magic tricks themselves illusions, but so are the reveals showing how they were accomplished, as the focal quartet of magicians (who dub themselves The Four Horsemen) have CGI and the movie universe’s liberal laws of physics and reason at their disposal. Yes, double the magic means double the suspension of disbelief, but given that “Now You See Me” is well aware of its profound silliness and isn’t trying to prove anything with its bullshit beyond how entertaining it can be, there is no reason for us to resist such suspension.
The Four Horsemen are played by the charismatic team of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco—each with a distinctive persona that plays well off the others’—and their tricks, performed in lavish magic shows of the David Blaine variety, double as heists. In the first, they take a seemingly random audience member and ask him where he banks, which happens to be in Paris. Then, they rob that bank using a ceiling suction fan to gobble up the vault’s contents, as seen in real time on the theater’s screens. The crowd goes wild when the cash rains down on them. Not so pleased, however, are the F.B.I. and Interpol (quickly becoming the most popular police organization in film), whose agents (Ruffalo and the beautiful Mélanie Laurent) take the Horsemen in for questioning despite not understanding how the heist was conducted.
I warned you that the movie was silly, a quality that’s amplified tenfold when it’s summarized in print. But as it plays out—the Horsemen pull off two more heists, with the agents following them, hoping to crack their illusions—“Now You See Me” is pure popcorn fun because the characters are magnetic (who doesn’t like this cast?), the action is well-crafted, and the reveals (fabricated as they are) pack a great deal of suspense. That it succeeds as a heist film without showing us the actual heists until after they happen (as opposed to, say, the “Oceans” films, which revel in scheming) and without informing us of the true motivation for the heists (the Horsemen are acting at the directive of a mysterious magicians’ society known as The Eye) is a testament to how engaging the aforementioned qualities are.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing left to chew on once you leave the theater—this is the epitome of a “watch it, then forget it” film—so I can’t give “Now You See Me” the same kind of glowing endorsement I would a more ambitious work, or even a blockbuster with a little more meat on its bones (think Tony Stark’s panic disorder in “Iron Man 3” and J.J. Abrams’ singular aesthetic for “Star Trek Into Darkness”). But as a summer folly, the movie is plenty good — at least on par with a rabbit in a hat, maybe even a vanishing toothpick.