Friday, August 18, 2006

The Illusionist

The Illusionist
Written and directed by Neil Burger based on the short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser
Yari Film Group Releasing

Note that a movie like The Illusionist is one best seen before reading a review, as I imagine October's The Prestige will be. Also note that I will write carefully, will be intentionally vague, so that the few out there who do read this review won't have the movie spoiled for them.

Edward Norton is another one of those guys who is always worth watching; he took a bit of a hiatus, at least from high-profile demanding roles, for almost four years after being crowned one of those "next Brando" types. Can you believe it's been ten years since his incredible debut performance in Primal Fear? Holy crap!

Here he plays magician Eisenheim, returning to Vienna after a fifteen year break imposed by his forced childhood separation from his true love Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess betrothed to Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). He wows the crowds with your usual impossible tricks, impressing Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is charged by Leopold to figure out how Eisenheim does them. Of course, Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other after all these years and it's not long before they rekindle the flame, which puts a kink in Leopold's plans to take the throne from his father. Sophie, defiant, tells the prince she will not marry him and it's not long before she's killed. After that, a bereaved Eisenheim performs tricks of another sort which I won't get into here.

The movie is filmed with a sort of conscious treading, careful not to signal where it's heading, which makes for a rather slow third act. To be quite truthful, I was a little disappointed in this movie--it has some very good promise at the beginning, and then during the revelations of the third act, I thought for a moment that the movie was telling me something I didn't know all along, at least a different wrinkle to my beliefs that I had not considered, and felt chills as I worked my head around the possibilities, only to be told, "Nope, you were right. Um, surprise!"

And beyond that, there's a certain something we lose when movies decide to show us children and then show them fifteen years later. We miss all those formative years that filmmakers seem to think aren't interesting at all (like in Braveheart--wouldn't it have been cool to see the teenage William Wallace learning how to be a man?), but in fact can give us more involvement in the proceedings--when Eisenheim and Sophie get back together as adults, I never felt that they held a candle for each other all those years. It's a plot development that the filmmakers (and let's face it, probably the original story) just sort of ask you to swallow without getting involved.

Overall, surprisingly plain for a movie about magic. No real dynamic performances (and Sewell playing his usual one-dimensional villain), a story that is bungled by its carefulness, and even worse--as I alluded to before, contains the possibility of a whammy of a (different) surprise that goes undetected by the filmmakers. Damn.


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