There’s something fascinating about magic again.
In an era where computer-generated special effects can portray the most stunning of creatures or stunts, there is something exciting about watching a magician like Criss Angel or David Blaine leave onlookers in a state of shock by performing a trick right in front of their disbelieving eyes. It’s that realization that something amazing has actually happened right in front of somebody, and with no camera tricks, that makes it special.
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That’s why in “The Illusionist,” when sternly-goateed magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) makes a tree grow from a pot of soil in a matter of seconds, we are not nearly as amazed as the audience in the movie is. It may take place in turn of the century Austria, but we recognize full well that it’s just another case of over-obvious CGI. This particular scene is 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, how he developed it, or what drove him to do it, “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. In “The Illusionist,” the couple’s attraction to each other seems forced at best, and the age difference between Norton and Biel is weird, especially when flashbacks to their youth clearly show that they were the same age back then. Maybe making himself appear older in his adult years is just another of Eisenheim’s illusions. Regardless, 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.
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.
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Giamatti is the conscience of the film, and it is his journey from the prince’s bootlicker to 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 be the highlight of a frustratingly bad movie. Inspector Uhl sees a bit of himself, the lower-class misfit who flirts with high society, in Eisenheim. He also begins to realize that he will never command the respect that Leopold was born into.
The story moves along briskly and is plotted efficiently, but besides Giamatti’s character, it leaves no time for real character development. It uses visual shorthand to skip pleasantly along above the surface, irising in and out to approximate the look of an old silent film, but never bothering to go any deeper. 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 until the twist ending supposedly comes 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.