Thursday, August 31, 2006
There's something fascinating about magic again.
In an era where computer-generated special effects can portray the most stunning of creatures or stunts, it's exciting to see an old school magician like Criss Angel or David Blaine shock onlookers by performing a trick right in front of their disbelieving eyes - with no camera tricks.
That's why in "The Illusionist," when sternly goateed magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) makes a tree grow in a matter of seconds, we movie-goers are not nearly as amazed as is the audience in the film. To us, it's just another case of overly obvious CGI, sorely lacking in magic, and in that way it is emblematic of the film as a whole.
If the movie explored in any depth what led Norton's character to magic or how he developed his skills, "The Illusionist" would be a better film. Instead these ideas are glossed over in a couple brief flashbacks, and we are treated to an unconvincing love triangle with Eisenheim, his childhood sweetheart Sophie (Jessica Biel), and an immature Austrian prince (Rufus Sewell) who's such a cardboard evil jerkwad that it's hard to figure out what she's doing with him in the first place.
The doomed love affair is one of the oldest and most successful varieties of romance stories. This particular couple's attraction to each other seems forced at best. We know we are supposed to feel something for these two because of the set-up, but Norton's sour, abrupt tone and the flat dialogue make it really difficult to muster anything.
Seasoned actors like Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti can't save this bland and convoluted tale of magic and love in turn of the century Vienna, which incidentally contains neither ingredient. CGI unconvincingly portrays Norton's magic tricks, and a lack of chemistry between he and Jessica Biel sinks any chance at a central love story to root for.
Standing out above these archetypes is Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the only well-drawn character in the movie. Eisenheim's arrival in Vienna is greeted with suspicion by the petty Prince Leopold. Uhl is his stooge, sent to harass the illusionist and find out how his tricks are done. As Uhl gradually becomes more sympathetic to Eisenheim, he risks alienating Leopold and losing a higher post he has worked years to get.
Giamatti is the conscience of the movie, and it is his journey from a prince's bootlicker to a man of principle that really powers the film. Like this summer's dreadful "The Lady in the Water," Giamatti proves yet again that he can shine even in a frustratingly bad movie.
The story moves along briskly and is plotted efficiently, but (aside from Giamatti's role) it leaves no time for real character development. It uses visual shorthand - the aesthetic of old silent films, for example - to skip pleasantly along above the surface. Director Neil Burger has crafted a workman-like picture, with no vision or clarity of theme, like a made-for-TV movie that asks nothing more of you than to figure out its own particular brand of slight-of-hand.
When it is all said and done, "The Illusionist" is just another modern movie, tarted up in turn of the century garb, that is interested in only fooling you right up to the twist ending attempts to come out of nowhere. To make matters worse, the twist itself is convoluted and full of holes, relying on huge coincidences that just happen to work out perfectly.