Far Too Simple Slight of Hand

by Alan Rapp on September 1, 2006

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: The Illusionist
  • IMDb: link

the-illusionist-posterHow critically do you watch films?  I ask this because a film like The Illusionist presupposes its audience to watch for entertainment and not pay too close attention to the man behind the curtain.  I dislike movies that take the audience’s intelligence and attention for granted.  This film assumes you are relatively dumb and unobservant.  If you, like me, watch a film, especially a suspense film, with a careful eye then you will no doubt be disappointed.  The Illusionist is all too willing, and eager, to give away its secrets.

The movie begins in a way that infuriates me.  It begins at the end, with the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) being arrested for his performances by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).  The film then takes place in a long flashback that explains the events leading up to this moment.  Why give away this much information in the first three minutes of the film?  Well since the film seems so eager to give away its secrets, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

From this point on the film profiles Eisenheim’s life, career as a magician, the events leading to his arrival in Vienna, and his arrest.  At times the film forgets its taking place in flashbacks as the narration goes away and we are presented with intimate details and conversations the narrator – Inspector Uhl, not Eisenheim, could not possibly have known.

On arriving in Vienna, Eisenheim discovers a childhood love, the duchess Sophie (Jessica Beil).  Despite her impending marriage to the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the two renew acquaintances and begin their love anew.

While in town Eisenheim also begins performing his illusions on stage.  At first they are slight of hand and magical tricks which become increasingly elaborate.  At one point in the film Eisenheim begins to converse with near perfect (too perfect for a magician today, let alone during this time period) ghostly images of the recently departed.  Eisenheim’s role in conjuring them is to sit in a chair on stage with his arm extended and act as constipated as possible.

Leopold is not pleased with Eisenheim’s affections for his betrothed or his fraudulent illusions.  He demands that Inspector Uhl prove him a fraud and close him down.  From that point all the characters change from smart, clever, and exceptionally observant to stupid, blind and bumbling, and back again, as dictated by the overly elaborate plot.  As you watch pay attention to each scene and you’ll notice paradoxes will occur no matter how the film decides to end (though the end is easy to guess).

The only way for such a plot to work is for characters to constantly be switching between being extremely clever and irrevocably stupid.  They have to be smart enough to make actions to further the plot and make discoveries, but yet be dumb enough to miss the obvious that is presented to them on a silver platter.

What starts out as a fairy tale about a beautiful princess, an evil prince, a magician and true love, quickly dissolves into melodrama and rather un-twistful twists.  The film drops large clunking plot points like anvils throughout the film instead of allowing the audience members to make an opinion on whether they believe Eisenheim illusions to magical or elaborate tricks.  It even goes so far to tack on an epilogue that explains everything for those who weren’t paying attention (think of the ending of Wild Things – there’s a great film to emulate!).

And then there’s the curse of Jessica Beil.  Now I’m not in anyway saying she’s a paticularly bad actress, in fact I think she’s been fine in most films I’ve seen her in.  Though I would suggest she stay away from period roles like this one in the future.  However she has a knack for finding the worst bungled films to star in (Blade Trinity, Stealth, Summer Catch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rules of Attraction, and Elizabethtown).  Her career (one that Ed Wood would be envious of!) is such a war zone that any film she’s cast in has an above average chance to set the theater on fire when it inevitably crashes and burns.  You don’t have to accept every script that comes your way, Ms. Beil.

Would you have enjoyed The Sixth Sense if you knew 25 minutes in that Bruce Willis was a ghost?  Say what you want about M. Night Shyamalan, but he does understand how to create a good twist (whether or not the film makes sense afterward is another story).  This film makes The Village look like Vertigo.  It relies so heavily on the premise of being able to fool you, but at the same time it’s so willing to give away every secret with clunky clues that you know what’s going to happen before the writers do.  There’s foreshadowing and then there’s yelling “Rosebud’s a sled!” twenty minutes into Citizen Kane.  This movie seems to think the second is the better form of entertainment.  And so, sadly, the curse of Jessica Biel continues.

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