Sorry, ladies. Leave the magic tricks to the men.
When word of famed-magician Eisenheim’s (Edward Norton) astounding illusions reaches the powerful and pragmatic Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the egotistical-ruler attends one of the magician’s shows in order to debunk Eisenheim during the performance. However, when the Prince’s intended, Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), assists the magician on-stage, a dormant love affair is rekindled. That’s where Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) steps-in to clear the air and find out just what the hell is going on here.
Back in the golden days of 2006, there was not one, but TWO movies made about 20th century magicians (the second-one being Christopher Nolan’s far-better The Prestige). Apparently, David Blaine or Criss Angel just weren’t cutting it for the movie-going audiences and they needed more magic, more illusions, and more bullshit! And even though Neil Burger is nowhere near the type of director Nolan is, and probably forever will be, at least the guy keeps us believing in that everything we see is real, no matter how much CG they may use. Oh, it’s actually fictionalized-tale? Could have fooled me. NOT!!
All kidding aside, the guy, Burger as I could probably assume he loves to be called, actually does a fine job with this material because he is able to not only keep us wondering just what the hell is going on here, but where this story is going to end-up lastly. It’s not easy to see the twists and turns coming and that’s where the fun of Burger’s direction seems to lie: the element of playing with his audience’s minds and expectations, much like the illusionist this story is all about. However, maybe I’am a bit biased in my own way and found more to reach for than mostly other-viewers.
I have to say, I love movies about con-men and in a way, magicians are sort of shoved into the same category as them. Therefore, fore me, watching as this magician would pull-off tricks and illusions to play with the minds of everybody who cared to go out and see him, really interested me and had me wonder just where exactly Burger was going to go with this story. Some places he takes you; you expect, whereas others; you don’t. All you do know is that Burger seems to have a fiery-passion for this material and it shines through in every, which way. Also, make sure to pay close-attention to all that’s going on here because it may just help you in the end. That’s the only piece of advice I’m giving away, and it’s all for free. Sadly.
Then again, the fact that Burger loves this material so much, you know, magicians playing tricks on each other, you sort of start to lose reality of what this story is actually about: a love between two people that can’t be together. It’s the age-old story of two kids that knew each other when they were young, fell in love, had their first, awkward kiss together (trust me, there’s plenty more where that came from you youngsters), and vowed to always be together, until they eventually are separated by two walks of life and class-situations. To be honest, there isn’t anything wrong with the story here, it just doesn’t get as much as love and dedication as the whole mystery does. It’s obvious that maybe Burger needed a little som-som to back-up all of his fun and games, but it doesn’t work or even have you give a lick about the forbidden-love between these two. You sort of just want them to bone, get it over with, and shut-up about the whole thing and move on with their lives. That would have been a lot more entertaining to watch then a bunch of people just moping and pissing around about how they can’t be with the one they love. I love Scarlett Johansson, but you don’t see me bitchin’ about that every, damn day, now do ya?!??! Didn’t think so. Get over it!
Half of the problem that I had with this plot-line, also had to do with the fact that Jessica Biel can’t act for shit, and when she tries too hard: this is what we end-up getting. Not a good thing to witness at all. Every movie I see this gal in, I always want her to blow me away, show me something more from her that I never, ever thought she had, and just make me believe in her once again as an actress (I don’t know when the first time was), but she just can’t pull that off here, no matter how meaty the material may be. Around all of these heavy-weights, she sort of sticks out like a sore-thumb and it’s very, very noticeable. I can’t even blame Burger either, because every obvious and predictable line this flick they throw at her, she hits it as if she was in a day-time soap, or better yet, still on another episode of 7th Heaven. Now, I think is the time to fully give-up on Biel as an actress and just face the fact that half of the roles that she’s offered, her hubby JT should just take mainly. May be a bit far-fetched for some people to believe in, but the guy can do no wrong. Let’s just face that fact and live our lives a little bit better now.
Even though Biel is bad, everybody else seems to be on their A-game. Hell, with a cast THIS GOOD, I actually wonder what the hell even drew Burger to cast Dullsville-Biel in the first-place. Was it the looks? Was it the possibility of the nude scene? Was it because he was secretly having a fling with her that JT didn’t know about? Or, was it just because she was a big name and that’s what this movie needed to get any sort of viewers whatsoever? I’m going with the former. But anywho, back the cast at-hand.
Edward Norton is, as usual, good as Eisenheim and gives the guy a very dark, mysterious-path that never gives us the easy answering of knowing whether or not the guy is good, or bad. His intentions are never clear, and you never really have the idea in your head that he’s doing all of these magic tricks for the entertainment of others or the money, but something more. He’s an interesting character that I wish we got to see more of, other than just realizing who that person is that makes his knees weak. He even gets pushed to the back-burner somewhere around the final-act, as the movie takes it’s own detour into mystery-thriller territory and sort of forgets all about what makes him a living, breathing character. It’s still a fun, last-act, but a very disappointing one if you take Norton and the character he was playing into consideration.
Rufus Sewell, much to nobody’s surprise whatsoever, plays Crown Prince Leopold, the corrupt and bastard-like ruler of the land, who soon hopes become king of the empire one day. Obviously, you know this guy is going to do evil and sadistic things throughout the large-portion of the flick, however, you sometimes get teentsie, tiny surprises of emotional-depth with this guy that seems real, honest, and more than just the traditional villain that we are used to seeing in these types of movies. But even though that depth and insight of that character comes out every once and awhile, it starts to be shoved back into him, just so the plot can move along and make him feel like he’s more and more of a dick, rather than a human-being. There’s a scene by the end with him where I really feel like I was starting to get the full picture of who the heck this guy really was, underneath all of the royalty and fancy-shizz, but sadly, it was a little too late for me and for him to really get the credit he deserved. Even if Sewell did a great-job with this character, I still feel like the script didn’t accompany him as well as it started-off as being. Poor guy, at least he still will forever and always be type-casted as that dick from now on.
The one who really steals the show in this whole movie, however, is in-fact Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Uhl. Uhl was a character that I thought was going to be the straight-up dickhead of the whole movie that was corrupt, mean, terrible, and ridiculous with all of the things that he did and used to his power as head of the police force. However, things for him, just like the plot itself, start to change and we see more of a moral-compass shell out of the guy, which was anymore than I ever expected. Giamatti plays this up so perfectly as we have no idea whether or not to trust this guy, believe he will do the right thing, or even, do anything reasonable to make his job and life seem like it has some sort of meaning. Watching Giamatti go through this internal conflict with himself was something of a work of magic (heehee), and it goes to show you that the guy can play anything he wants, and still have that pure-bread, lovable personality to him, no matter how dark or mean the character may be. Swell job, Paul. Swell.
Consensus: The Illusionist may not work when it comes to being about the love between our two main-characters, mainly because it doesn’t feel developed as well as the all of the fun and games of the magic-tricks, but with a superb-cast (minus Biel) and an inspired direction from Burger who seems to really enjoy this material, you have more enjoyment than you expect.
7 / 10 = Rental!!