By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 01, 2013 at 10:01 AM

When did magic become cool again?

This was my main thought watching "Now You See Me," the second star-studded release in the past three months attempting to cash in on a trend from seemingly a decade ago (March’s "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" was the other one in case you’ve understandably forgotten). To be fair, the same thing happened seven years ago with "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige" coming out within months of each other.

Those movies were smart, tricky and, in the latter’s case, kind of magical. "Now You See Me" is none of those things. It more resembles the logic-devoid "Man on a Ledge" than its obvious role model "The Prestige," and the only trick it has up its sleeve is making $10 and several brain cells disappear.

Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco star as a band of cocksure street magicians brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and formed into a wildly popular act called "The Four Horsemen." During a flashy Vegas show, they manage to rob a French bank, drawing the attention of an agitated FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and a sweet Interpol agent (Mélanie Laurent of "Inglourious Basterds").

They chase the wily magicians from Vegas to New Orleans to New York, trying to uncover the final goal of their illegal illusions. Meanwhile, the Horsemen raise the stakes with each show, finding a new deep-pocketed victim to steal from and give to their crowds (in a flimsy attempt to bring some of the current Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist to a dated concept). Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman round out the cast as the magicians’ wealthy benefactor and a sneaky magic debunker with uncertain affiliations, respectively.

Magic and filmmaking are very similar works of entertainment (it’s not called movie magic just because the alliteration is fun). If a movie or an illusion are to succeed, they must lure the audience in and convince them into believing the often unbelievable. That being said, "Now You See Me" director Louis Leterrier and his trio of writers – Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt – are terrible magicians. Every time the film gets close to sucking the audience in, they fumble the deck.

Sometimes it’s the ridiculous story, which somehow continually manages to outdo every preposterous turn with an even more brain-insulting one. The plot starts off dumb – the magicians are allowed to tour the country despite the fact that the detectives know how they pulled off the original heist … and they told the crowd they were robbing a bank – and then gradually builds to a final reveal that will cause viewers’ brains to somersault trying to understand the logic of the ludicrously elaborate and precise plan. Plus, for all of the script's talk of a "grand final trick," the endgame – partially involving some millennia-spanning magic cult called The Eye that is apparently worth risking significant time in prison – is rather underwelming.

On the other hand, the Horsemen’s plan gets Eisenberg into a hilariously fake mustache. I’ll let you decide if those brief seconds of fabulous facial hair are worth the plot-related headaches.

Other times, it’s just a disappointing lack of actual magic. Most of the tricks are completely implausible (Isla Fisher jumps into a bubble and floats … sure), and those that aren’t still require plenty of CGI to make them come to overblown life. After all, why simply chain someone to the bottom of a water tank when you can chain someone to the bottom of a water tank filled with man-eating piranhas? Because it’s silly – that’s why – and using special effects for so much of the magic seems like taking the lazy way out.

A quick glance at Leterrier’s resume – including two "Transporter" films and the "Clash of the Titans" remake – shows he’s not exactly a veteran of complex plots. His game is action, so when "Now You See Me" throws Ruffalo and Franco together for a goofily entertaining chase (complete with shuriken-like card-flinging), he’s got a comfortable handle on it.

He’s also equipped with an overqualified cast that seems to be having a lot of fun with the material. Laurent winningly lights up the screen, and she has an easy chemistry with the ornery Ruffalo (though the budding romance feels a bit forced). Fellow "Zombieland" survivors Eisenberg and Harrelson also have a ball with their amusingly smug characters and their snappy dialogue.

Their spirited performances almost manage to sell the film’s absurdity, but "Now You See Me" is never willing to leave stupid enough alone. It’s a dim bulb slight of hand that’ll likely leave viewers feeling slighted. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.