The signature line of the new "magicians pull heists" movie Now You See Me says it all: "The closer you look, the less you see." It's meant to be a lesson in stepping back and taking in the big picture, but it lands as an accurate appraisal of the movie's emptiness.
Emptiness doesn't preclude fun, but Now You See Me is so preposterous in its particulars, so ludicrous in its lowdown, that you're liable to kick yourself silly for having bothered to play along.
As directed by Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans), the picture starts out brisk and credibly Ocean's 11-y, a shuffly jazz score accompanying introductions to the middlebrow magicians who will become star players "The Four Horsemen." A mysterious figure selects and brings together Vegas-y attractions J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), as well as two hustlers: mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and small-time scammer Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). After a time jump, we find the motley crew headlining a giant MGM Grand show under the patronage of insurance mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and the watchful eye of debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).
When that Vegas show turns out to be predicated on a right-before-your-eyes Parisian bank heist, in come grumpy FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and magic-loving Interpol operative Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to investigate and flirt. Despite all of those stars, most of whom have individually headlined their own movies, screenwriters Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt unconventionally split their narrative focus such that the plot becomes the star. The story mostly sticks by Agent Rhodes, with the Four Horsemen as his antagonists, but we're encouraged to root for the criminals, whose three splashy show crimes make up the film's three acts.
The ornamentation here is nothing to sneeze at: Leterrier brings flash and dazzle to spare, including in action sequences that he frames tightly and moves quickly, and by succeeding in translating to film two bits of magic trickery (film-opening bits involving a card trick and Harrelson's body-cue readings; it's downhill from there). And who couldn't enjoy Caine and Freeman in a couple of toe-to-toe pas de deux?
Unfortunately, the film establishes then basically ignores an intriguing premise that the "Four Horsemen" are being tested for membership in an ancient magic cult (there's a few interesting movies in that idea, and this isn't any of them). Instead, the picture makes a deal with the devil, making character incidental to standard-issue twists that vigorously strain credulity. There are worse distractions to be had than Now You See Me, but in a crowded summer marketplace, don't be surprised if "Now You Don't" right quick.