- - Thursday, May 30, 2013

The high-concept idea that powers “Now You See Me” — four magicians team up to rob banks during performances and distribute the money to the audience — belongs in the pantheon of too clever movie-premise elevator pitches. The actual movie, on the other hand, is not nearly clever enough. Competently staged and occasionally witty, yet still not quite satisfying, it’s a movie with a lot of tricks but not much magic.

The biggest problem with “Now You See Me” is a lack of focus. For one thing, the movie never entirely settles on a protagonist. As the film begins, we meet and follow four magicians, each with his or her own specialty. There’s trickster J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and thief Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Each is given a mysterious card with a date and the address of a New York apartment. The meeting brings them together, and sets in motion the events that lead to a series of high-profile magic-show heists.

But after the quartet performs its first big show as The Four Horsemen, in which the group robs a bank chosen by a randomly picked audience member, the movie switches focus, letting FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his Interpol partner Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) seem to take the lead. The film also introduces two other characters — magic-act debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Horsemen financier Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

Director Louis Leterrier keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and has concocted a handful of engaging scenes. The dialogue is above average, and the supporting cast is particularly strong. But there are too many players battling for center stage in this ungainly act. Nor does it help that the secondary performers who are the most entertaining to watch — Mr. Caine, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Harrelson — end up with the least amount of screen time.

Screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt don’t really seem to know whose story they want to tell: The rise of the Horsemen from small-time tricksters to big-time magician-thieves? Or the chase by Rhodes and Dray? There’s a subplot about a magician who died in a failed escape act after Mr. Freeman’s character exposed his tricks, and a big mystery about who is really orchestrating the Horsemen’s act, and a handful of hints that the movie was once conceived as a populist revenge picture about magicians who take on Wall Street baddies in the name of the people. But in the end, the script merely glances at these issues before they disappear down the rabbit hole.

Just as big a problem is the way the movie undercuts the allure of big-time magic stage shows with its use of mediocre computer-generated effects. The magic of the movies may work well for flying dragons and giant robots, but it’s a poor way to communicate the appeal of practical illusions. Without those sorts of real-world how’d-they-do-that questions to ground the movie’s mysteries, I left this magician-heist film feeling both tricked and robbed.

★★ 1/2 

TITLE: “Now You See Me”

CREDITS:Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt

RATING: PG-13 for violence, language

RUNNING TIME:116 minutes 

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STAR