THE FILM: Now You See Me, Summit Entertainment, 2013
PRINCIPAL ACTORS: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Laurent
TAGLINE: The closer you look, the less you’ll see.
SYNOPSIS: An FBI agent and an Interpol detective track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.
The closer you look, the less you’ll see. That’s the line that’s bandied about constantly in the 2013 film Now You See Me, or as it was shorthanded (and probably pitched), “Ocean’s 11 with magicians”. Heist movies and television showcasing con artists are generally well received by Americans, the people who steal exorbitant amounts of money without ever lifting a gun or causing physical harm, instead getting by on persuasion and remarkable charm. Seeing as the crew of Now You See Me succeeds in heists of 3 million euros, $140 million, and finally half a billion dollars, yet never keep a cent for themselves and distribute the wealth to the masses, it’s understandable why the film follows the proper trope rules of a modern heist movie. I say modern because the rules have changed in the last few decades in order to make the suave and debonair thieves more likable to the audience. To provide a quick example, the Pierce Brosnan driven remake of The Thomas Crown Affair significantly alters the thefts, having Thomas forgo the guns of the original and instead relying purely on misdirection and distraction, turning the crime from violent to elegant.
However, Now You See Me offers magicians as its protagonists, sliding them into the Robin Hood role, though, from a writer’s standpoint, I never knew one way or the other if they truly believed the altruistic show they were putting on, or were just following the script for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What did stick out for me, though, was a short character development scene on a plane from Vegas to New Orleans, meant to poke fun at the FBI and Interpol agents (Dylan and Alma) chasing the crew, forced to fly coach while the magicians are on a private jet exchanging witty banter.
In this scene, Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma (Melanie Laurent) kill time on the long flight while Alma attempts to learn a simple card trick:
Alma: Is this your card?
Dylan: No, my card is sitting over there in that guy’s lap. (ALMA facepalms while DYLAN retrieves the card) Nice shuffle.
Alma: Is it magicians, in general, that you have a problem with? Or specifically these guys?
Dylan: (pouring drink) I could care less about magicians in general. What I hate is people who exploit other people.
Alma: Exploit them how? (offers him the cards) Pick again.
Dylan: (taking a card) By taking advantage of their weaknesses. Their need to believe in something unexplainable in order to make their lives more bearable. (Looks at card, puts it back in the deck)
Alma: I see it as a strength. My life is happier when I believe that. (Puts down the King of Diamonds) Is this your card?
Dylan: (smiling slightly) Yeah.
Alma: (grinning) Yeah?
Dylan (smiling a bit bigger) Yeah.
Alma: (grinning widely now) Cool! (sees DYLAN’S smile, points at it) That smile on your face. Is it real?
Dylan: (shrugs) Maybe.
Alma: So let me ask you, Mr. Detective Man. Do you feel exploited? Or did you maybe have a tiny, tiny bit of fun?
Dylan: (doesn’t answer, and hides his smile by taking a drink)
While it’s a little difficult to not look at that scene and say “writer-ly”, at the same time I feel it addressed the concerns the writers felt the film was going to receive critically. Heist and con movies, after all, are generally a ride, and more often than not don’t have much substance to them. Any conflict between members of the crew is more often than not simply another layer of the con to better draw in the mark, the plot needing to focus on the “behind the scenes” leading up to the big trick, and then having to pull the curtain and reveal how it was done.
In the film, Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman), a professional “magic debunker” remarks that over 2 million people had gone to see magic shows, but 5 million people had downloaded his videos explaining how the tricks were done. This is one of the reasons, I believe that movies like Ocean’s 11, Now You See Me, and TV shows like Leverage have a following: They’re essentially magic shows where you get to have your cake and eat it too. You get to be amazed by the con and the spectacle and illusion, and then almost immediately find out how it was done.
There’s no doubt that Dylan, in that scene, likely knows exactly how that simple card trick works, but that slight smile is still genuine. When we go to magic shows, or heist movies, we know exactly what we’re getting into, that it’s not actually magic, and that nothing is immutable until the summation plays out, the curtain falls, and the credits roll. The movies are meant to be a ride, but that scene is an answer to those who deride it for lacking substance, or who call it out on various errors, or, well, look closer, because the closer they look, the less they see. As said near the end of the film, “All we wanted was to bring the world to a magic show,” and magic shows are mostly meant to be entertaining, to allow the audience to have a “tiny, tiny bit of fun.” It’s that promise of amazement, wonder, and well, fun, that keeps us coming back, for that split second where we consider that the illusion might be real, and that all things are truly possible, and whether or not we can see that as a weakness, or a strength.