The Illusionist

Not as Clever as It Thinks

It’s September, one of those movie release months where the studios market films that it probably has little confidence in. Films that are deemed not potentially popular enough for a summer or holiday release, and not arty or highbrow enough for Oscar contention get shown about now (or in February, the other dumping ground month). The interesting thing about The Illusionist is that it’s an independent film with no studio attachments, so these “rules” don’t really apply. It’s got fairly big stars and high production values. So is it worth seeing, or is it just a smoke-and-mirrors act?

Master illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has come from humble roots, but now owns Vienna with his mysterious magic show which defies convention. Here he is reunited with childhood love Sophie (Jessica Biel), whom he was forbidden to see due to class differences. Practically engaged to the oily Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), Sophie and Eisenheim embark on a dangerous affair. With Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) watching their every move, will the two lovers ever meet up with their apparent destiny?

This movie has quite a few things going for it. Set sometime around 200 years ago (we’re never told when), the period production design is impeccable. It looks very authentic, and one could guess (despite the magic aspect) that they were watching an old Merchant/Ivory production. Very well done.

The cast is also wonderful. Edward Norton (Down in the Valley) is always interesting to watch (although he appears to be slumming in recent years), and makes an effective Eisenheim, humble and mysterious. Paul Giamatti (Lady in the Water) is downright great, chewing the scenery as the conflicted Uhl who likes Eisenheim but sill must answer to the Crown Prince. He is played by the dastardly Sewell (Tristan + Isolde) who’s played the period villain role so many times (and well), he could do it blindfolded.

The nicest surprise in this category is actress Jessica Biel. She is absolutely luminous as Sophie, and it’s the chemistry between her and Norton that makes for the film’s best moments. This is a very good move for Biel, lifting her from TV star (7th Heaven) and B-movie sexpot (Stealth, Blade: Trinity, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to actual thespian. This role proves she can act (and use a convincing accent), and should serve her well as she looks for her next role. Here’s hoping she gets some more good ones.

The major gaffes in this movie come from a screenplay (written by director Neil Burger) that makes several critical errors. The most glaring problem is that a major plot turn happens in the middle that the audience can see through in about two seconds. The movie tries to be sneaky, and ends with a Sixth Sense-like flashback reveal that covers events everyone in the theater knew already. It’s insulting.

Another problem is that Eisenheim’s illusions are just too incredible. Magic is at its best when we don’t know the trick. When we are seeing things on the screen so amazing that they could only be done with CGI effects (butterflies carrying a handkerchief for example), it’s a letdown. David Copperfield and his big budgets couldn’t pull these tricks off, and the film is supposed to be way in the past! The simple scenes of Norton really moving a ball between his fingers are more captivating than any of this computer generated hooey.

The Illusionist is really a thinly-veiled magic trick in-and-of-itself. Unfortunately, when you can see how the trick is done, it’s not nearly as magical.