Magic tricks, jokes, and con-man tales all work based on the interplay of a few elements: setups, complications, diversions, and a Grand Reveal. A successful setup will tease you into a false sense of understanding and then lure you through a maze of complications and diversions before yanking away the façade with a dazzling switcheroo. The risk, of course, is that the revelation won’t be justified by what preceded it, that the curtain will swing open for the Grand Reveal and have nothing grand to show. When this happens, the results are unfunny jokes, obvious cons, and not-so-magical tricks. Or, The Illusionist.
The Illusionist has some charm to it, but it is the sort of charm usually reserved for the neighborhood eight-year-olds who dress up and put on magic shows at some indulgent parents’ home. It’s intermittently watchable, in its own clunky way, and certainly the participants are all trying very hard. It’s difficult, though, to be enthusiastic about such lackluster results when the players aren’t local kids, but seven-figure Hollywood talent who demand ten bucks plus parking and a sitter. Better to have watched the kids at the house down the street than shelled out for the movie — at least their dumb tricks have the virtue of being cute.
Director Neil Burger’s movie performs like a leaden, C-grade Shyamalan clone. Shyamalan is a dubious choice of model to begin with, but he some strengths, only some of which Burger shares. Like Shyamalan, Burger has a strong handle on the mechanics of filmmaking; his detailed production design and golden-brown palette bear the richness of a children’s fantasy book illustration. But Burger, despite having acquired some excellent actors, doesn’t have Shyamalan’s way with performances, and he coasts on the talent of his cast. Nor is he as adept at distracting audiences from his true intentions, meaning that the proceedings feel not so much like a movie as a bare framework built to showcase an intendedly clever twist.
Set in 1890s Vienna, the movie concerns a tempestuous love triangle between an intense, peerless magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), an arrogant-yet-insecure Prince (Rufus Sewell), and a graceful young beauty of no particular note except that she is, well, beautiful (Jessica Biel). The Prince, feeling the need to exercise his villainous tendencies, brings in his stern but scrupulous city investigator (Paul Giamatti) to harass the magician. As so often happens in old-world Prince/magician/beauty romantic disputes, strange things start to happen, the flames of passion roar, and all the actors involved try to show each other up with their breathy, practiced accents.
Throughout the film, Burger flirts with the specter of magical realism. And though his elegant photography effectively suggests an aura of otherworldly mystery, he’s constrained by a story structure that won’t actually let him reveal anything of interest, meaning that most of what goes on is shallow and not particularly useful. Magic and reality don’t really spectacularly collide so much as awkwardly bump into each other like strangers in an office hallway.
The limitations of the script force much of the film’s burden onto the actors, and there’s only so much they can do with all the fluff they’re given. Not surprisingly, Giamatti is the most successful of the bunch. After the last two months, the Directors Guild of America clearly owes this balding, brilliant sad-sack character actor some sort of gratuitous Hollywood recognition ceremony, the kind with $40,000 gift bags, Champaign swimming pools, starlets wearing slinky gowns made entirely out of rubies and maybe the rights to their first-born children. Whether fronting M. Night Shyamalan’s latest exercise in narcissistic belief-mongering or voicing a bug-spraying capitalist goon in a children’s commie fable, Giamatti does wonders for even the worst cinematic dreck. Like plastic surgery, he smoothes out the wrinkles the directors leave in his films, though he can’t mask their underlying homeliness.
I wish the same could be said for Edward Norton. In his case, I can only cleave to my special edition Fight Club DVD and wonder what happened. After his creepy Primal Fear debut as a deranged dude who faked everyone into thinking he had multiple personalities and his now-iconic turn in Fight Club as a Gen-X Everyman who faked himself into thinking he didn’t have multiple personalities, Norton was poised to become the next great American actor, a 90s version of Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro. Then he turned up alongside Brando and De Niro in the feeble heist pic, The Score, and reminded everyone that the nutso Brando and self-parodying De Niro aren’t exactly at the top of their game anymore either. These days, one can’t help but wonder if maybe there really are two Edward Nortons: the intensely talented actor we saw in his early films and the shallow, non-presence of The Score and The Illusionist.
It’s not all Norton’s fault, though. Burger sets aside a few perfunctory scenes to establish Eisenheim’s genial nature — oh look, he gives money to the poor children, what a sweetie! — but the problem is that these scenes are really all anyone has to go on about a character who is allegedly the protagonist. The film’s central mystery requires that we simply can’t know anything about him.
Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s paired up with Jessica Biel, a blandly beautiful former TV star culled from Tinseltown’s current pool of vacant B-list blondes. Biel “acts” in the way the French make war, which is to say she doesn’t. When she first appears in the film, it’s literally out of thin air, a wispy, incorporeal stage apparition utterly lacking in substance — also an accurate comment on her skills as a performer. You can think of her as the ghost of obvious symbolism.
The Illusionist, for all its pretensions to period-film grace, is really just a glorified parlor trick. Like all such tricks, it has a certain shimmering aesthetic appeal that might convince you for a moment that something magical is occurring. But when it’s over, the realization sets in: there was never anything there to begin with. It is, after all, just an illusion.