Now You See Me: The Greatest Possible Movie Michael Scott Could Have Written While Remaining Plausibly True To Type
Danny: This weekend you showed me both Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2 — movies I’d always had mixed up in a general, hazy sense with both 2006’s The Prestige and The Illusionist, plus that old Kevin Spacey movie 21 about those MIT students who count cards (none of which, by the way, I have ever seen).
They’re absolutely stunning movies. I think I described them to you as feeling like the best possible version of Threat Level Midnight that Michael Scott could ever have written; in whatever universe where he absolutely maxes out on professional training, editing, and self-improvement without ceasing to be Michael Scott. The priority is always, and delightfully, the twist, above all else. There's a bit in the sequel where two characters interact, where seemingly one only speaks English and the other only Mandarin; later, and separately, it is revealed they both speak both languages. There's absolutely no reason for either of them to have withheld that knowledge (not just on one, but several occasions) except for the fact that it's fun as hell to say, "Surprise, I could always speak Mandarin." And that's really it, I think, when it comes to the movie's commitments and interests. More twists, always. Everyone gets to deliver at least one version of the speech that goes something like: "You're an idiot for thinking I've been doing what I was doing. When you realized I wasn't doing what I was doing, that's when you were the biggest idiot of all, because that's when I was doing the opposite, backwards, seven times. You don't know what magic is. Magic is what happens when I have you distracted...and I just distracted you again."
There's so much more to be said – Jesse Eisenberg's wig-swap from the first movie to the second feels like a much bigger character change than switching Lizzy Caplan for Isla Fisher, not to mention the fact that his magic routine appears to have developed an atheist-evangelism component; Woody Harrelson's performance as his own gay twin brother is one of the most hateful things I have ever seen in my life and I honestly think he should have been arrested for it; I love the version of mental vulnerability that exists in these movies, where all it takes to be rendered perfectly hypnotized/knocked out/forced to reveal your most shameful secrets is for someone to say something like "WATCH my WATCH and SLEEP," like everyone's got a psychic fontanelle; something about how much it felt like watching a Scientology video.
But I'll leave off for now, because we have all the time in the world. Just look at my watch…
Grace: I'm so glad you liked these movies, I agree they're both absolutely fascinating. I went to see them both with my wonderful Cliff when they came out, and the first time in particular we were so struck by the film's sheer intensity. We'd never seen anything like it. At their core is a bizarre proposition, which the mostly-lukewarm reviews mentioned but didn't quite understand, which is that cinema can perfect stage magic using CGI. It shouldn't work, because we would expect to be utterly unimpressed by obviously-fake footage of, for example, Isla Fisher stepping into a bubble, or Jesse Eisenberg making rain go upwards. Whereas in fact, the shows that we get to watch are mostly just smug, triumphalist patter — you sniveling idiots, you thought there was a rabbit there, god you make me sick — that feels vaguely eroticized in context, but would also be deployed whatever the trick in question was. So it works beautifully.
Of course, this proposition is not without its contradictions. Both films want the audience to associate magic with childlike wonder and glee, and — this isn't as much of a stretch as it might seem — the kind of pre-financialization affects of what Adorno, in an essay on the popular Victorian entertainments described in The Old Curiosity Shop, describes as "baroque." At the end of the first movie, our heroes step onto a carousel, lit as though in a sepia photograph come to life; in the second, magic is an inherited property (some Harry Potter shit there) associated with a lovable American pop and his adoring son, whose difference from the cruel (and "illegitimate") British father-and-son team forms one of the movie's recurring motifs. Where "Lionel Shrike" (whose name I want to be a B. S. Johnson reference, but probably isn't) and his ilk are good old-fashioned American entertainers, Michael Caine and Daniel Radcliffe are both figures of financial liquidity: one is an insurance magnate, the other a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has faked his own death. But this mapping, already rather overdetermined (British : financial : mobile/illegitimate : : American : baroque : inherited), becomes spectacularly overburdened when it is also charged with extracting pleasure through the performance of upper-handedness. We simply don't have an easily available figure for that, and I suspect that's why the screenplays keep returning to "Robin Hood," who seems to be the closest.
As you can tell, I think the real interest in these movies is how they think about, and fail to think about, the radical redistribution of wealth. Jesse Eisenberg steals $114m from an insurance magnate on stage, and gives it to survivors of Hurricane Katrina in the audience! As you pointed out when we were watching, the audience we see is mostly composed of white people (the Four Horseman, whose name perfectly conjoins the apocalyptic pomposity of the stage spectacle with the apocalyptic pomposity of Chapo Trap House) which is difficult to drag into a diegesis that, clearly, thinks it is depicting reparations in some way. The reason for that is not without structural significance, though: clearly, if the audience for four white magicians had been primarily composed of people of color, the movie's audience would know something was afoot, and the big reveal - that everyone in the theater had had their insurance claims stiffed by Michael Caine - would have been predictable. So the central question for both movies becomes: how to maintain the illusion that the Four Horseman are actually militant anti-capitalists merely pretending to be magicians, when in fact they are millionaire actors pretending to be militant anti-capitalists (who happen to be dressed as magicians)? Which I think is a really fascinating formal problem.
Danny: Let's not forget that, inexplicably, the Four Horsemen kept alluding to Hurricane Katrina while describing their justification for redistributing the money onstage without ever actually using the phrase “Hurricane Katrina.” It was as if they'd all been forbidden from using the word “hurricane,” or like their memories had been wiped, and all they were left with was a vague sense of “Something happened here.” Jesse Eisenberg says something like "Something terrible happened to America's loveliest city...and your insurance company denied your claims," and then everyone nods angrily and meaningfully. It was reminiscent of the fake fundraiser Jack schedules on 30 Rock, to prepare for a sort of Mad-Libs-style possible disaster, where Jenna attempts to meaningfully interpret a song with lyrics like: "Help the people the thing that happened happened to."
Weirdly, I sort-of got sucked in by that triumphalist patter. I have an inconsistent response to that sort of thing! If it's happening live, I'll almost certainly flinch away in embarrassment, but in a movie (or Scientology video) there's something, uh, hypnotic about the pleasure it takes in its own obviousness. And like Scientology videos, Now You See Me spends a lot of time and money ramping up a vague or impenetrable claim (as when Jesse Eisenberg 'controls the rain' one night in London in what basically amounts to this scene from Wet Hot American Summer) with jump cuts, powerful Ted-Talk-style stage-striding and power poses, inspirational/aggro music, strobe lighting, lens flares...all sizzle, no steak, which it turns out is kind of an amazing genre. Like going to a restaurant that doesn't have any food but pipes in various industrial flavor smells. Which feels in keeping, I think, with Eisenberg's sort-of-atheist-David-Copperfield pivot, as well as the constant evasions/cut-aways whenever the subject of “The Eye” comes up: no God, no center, no sorcery, but always the possibility just in case that would make for a cool twist later. It's the most “It’s the journey, not the destination” thing I've ever seen. Most heist/caper movies that are a little like this one (not that any movie is a lot like this one) take a great deal of pleasure in the final reveal, in the extraction of as much detail as possible to the initial mystery, but there are so many reveals in this franchise that the details became totally meaningless, unnecessary, untethered to anything. I was faking it the whole time. I was never there. I am my own twin brother. I was the hobo. I could speak Mandarin the whole time. I was always on your side. Etc.
Speaking of the overcomplicated/overly-determined father-and-son structure, does that mean that Morgan Freeman was the Bad Dad to Lionel Shrike's Good Dad? Your dead dad, who loved you, was secretly my best friend; I've been waiting for you to guess it for 30 years. Now you're my illegitimate son, whom I love (shades of Daniel Radcliffe, again).
The future of the franchise could really just be paternity reveal after paternity reveal, if they wanted to go that route.
Grace: Roll on Now You See Me Three: I'm a Shrike, You're a Shrike, Everyone's a Shrike-Shrike! Fathers and sons are one axis for logics of substitution in this movie, but the other one is brothers, of which there are two. As you've said, Woody Harrelson hate-crimes his way through a performance as his own flaming double, but in a sense he's the less significant of the two. More central is Dave Franco, whose very name — Dave — seems to be code for “My Older Brother Is More Famous.” He's America's little brother; Zac Efron, if Zac Efron had been relentlessly bulled by someone slightly less attractive. His perfect body has been squeezed into the most handsome Levi's and a plain white tee, and he's Granny's favorite, but he's still the runt of the litter, and everything he says or does reveals the fact. It is incredibly sexy. I have always swooned for the most handsome failson in America, and nowhere is he sexier than when he pats the enormous wooden “cards” with which he is beautifully selling an unimpressive trick somewhere in foggy London town. It's so humiliating, and so perfect, that in this franchise he is made to play second fiddle to, of all people, Jesse Eisenberg.
There are a few things that change in the second movie, and I don't think they're all to the good. I don't want to grouse, because it's remarkable that the second movie works at all - the first one is such a complete shitshow, and yet pulled off with such unanticipatable panache, that it's remarkable the second doesn't feel entirely arch and knowing. But I think it's worth my saying that the Horsemen's transformation, however partial, into Derren Brown-style debunkers seems to violate the spirit of the first movie. It's not an easy set of maneuvers to track, and worth doing slowly. Clearly, for both movies, “debunking” is just another form of bunking; Morgan Freeman, the chief debunker of the first movie, is revealed as the macro-bunker of the second - and, quite impressively, manages to deliver the exact same monologue, word-for-word, on both sides of the distinction. And then the theory of magic with which Jesse Eisenberg does his work presumes the ideological value of “debunking” — when you are looking most closely, that's when you are most deluded. (Parenthetically, I rather like this claim about ideology-critique. I'm also very skeptical of “debunking” as a philosophical or hermeneutic move — I think my book proposes, among other things, an ethics of rebunking, though it doesn't use exactly this language.)
But nonetheless, a tonal shift takes place. In the first movie, aside from the cognitive dissonance it produces, debunking is a shoddy move on other grounds — it gilds the lily, spoils the magic, ruins the fun. This is why we spend most of that movie irritated with Morgan Freeman, who is being a dick. And that dickishness is a far more significant than whatever culpability he has for the death of Lionel Shrike. The film's stunning inability to accord Shrike responsibility for his own death — “Morgan Freeman goaded me to do it!!” — is genuinely stunning, especially when it is on the grounds of that goading that our apparent hero Mark Ruffalo, the FBI agent revealed to be Shrike's son, frames Freeman for grand larceny and imprisons him for, apparently, thirty years, the one truly evil act that anyone commits in either movie. All of which is to say, the eventual revelation in the second movie that Morgan Freeman, far from being Shrike's enemy, was in cahoots with him, and sees Ruffalo's vindictiveness as merely a sign that he “wasn't ready” to join the secret society of which he was, all along, the secret head, absolves Ruffalo far too easily, but fails to absolve Freeman himself from the dickishness with which the first movie has charged him, the dickishness of the spoilsport.
People who haven't seen these movies are going to be so lost. Which is part of the point of Now You See Me — in an age where we habitually check Wikipedia plot summaries or read recaps of movies we have no intention of otherwise interacting with, there is something truly unusual about a mass-cultural phenomenon (the rarest thing: a sequel-spawning non-adapted movie) that cannot easily be summarized. Which isn't to say that the plot doesn't matter - as you say early on here, the plot is all that matters.
I guess we haven't even talked about the payoff we’re offered at the end of the first movie — after mayhem, redistribution, violence, faked death, bank robberies, etc. “The real magic,” intones Mark Ruffalo, “is taking four strong solo acts and making them work together.”
THE REAL MAGIC IS TAKING FOUR STRONG SOLO ACTS AND MAKING THEM WORK TOGETHER
Danny: Dave Franco does have an essential youngerbrotherness to him, I think that's true, where Jesse Eisenberg feels more like the eldest and only boy in a family of four. And maybe there's a little-sibling quality to the movie's attitude as a whole, which delights in “I know you are, but what am I?” and “I didn't do it”-style gimmicks. And, of course, Daniel Radcliffe's character is apparently the youngest of seven, all legitimate but him, and he makes multiple references to his older-brother film franchise (“Magic??? It'll never take off,” etc, “Model Ts will NEVER replace the horse”). It is odd that, between Franco and Radcliffe, Eisenberg is pulling off, like, middle-of-the-road guyness. He's still chattering nonstop and waving his hands around uncomfortably, but here it's just understood that that's kind of suave.
I was so irritated by Morgan Freeman in the first movie and resented everything about him; but I don't think he really blamed himself that much for Shrike's death? It was more like, "It's sort of weird that I never told you we were secret besties" with a little bit of "could my role in our act have slightly added to the pressure your father was already experiencing to throw himself into a river while trapped in a safe? Well, maybe," but it didn't strike me as "Oh, shit, Morgan Freeman blames himself" sort of a moment. But of course, the real magic was always taking four strong acts and getting them to work together.
Oh God, remember that unbelievably long sequence where they kept passing a card back and forth betwixt themselves during a pat-down? I could only find a 3-minute clip online, but that scene was at least eight minutes long.
Where at one point Jesse Eisenberg just slowly and visibly throws it across the room, and there's no longer any pretense about having tried to disguise it? He just whips it over at Dave Franco, and everyone watches? And THEN the fussy guy (from Sotheby’s) later turns out to have been another member of the Eye, again for no reason, and no payoff other than, “Hang on, it's the guy from before! Oh, and he was in on it the whole time,” which again is just SUCH a Michael Scott move.
There's so much pleasure in going and reading the script with stage directions, because absolutely nothing about this script translates into what it feels like to watch this movie. It's nothing like. I mean:
Voiceover: Now the greatest magicians in the world are my magic trick.
J. Daniel Atlas: I’ve been told that I have some control issues, so I’m going to control something that’s a lot easier than people.
[pointing to the rain]
J. Daniel Atlas: Stop!
Merritt McKinney: We jumped off a rooftop in New York. We ran into China.
J. Daniel Atlas: How is this possible?
Merritt McKinney: Have I ever told you about the guy who screwed me over everything? This is my twin brother Chase.
Jack Wilder: Not long ago we were tricked.
Lula: So it’s only fitting that we do the same thing to the person who did it to us.
Dylan Rhodes: Want to know what all this has been leading to?
Thaddeus Bradley: The greatest magic trick ever created.
I don't even remember who Thaddeus Bradley was anymore. But I can’t wait for Now You Three me.
Grace: Oh my goodness, and that reminds me that Woody Harrelson at one point delivers the line “in China they don't call it Chinese food…they just call it food,” as though (1) nobody had ever said that before, and (2) it carried the epic force of “we're not in Kansas any more.” The script is merciless. And that line about “not long ago we were tricked”/”so it's only fitting that we do the same thing to the person who did it to us” reminds me of another bonkers aspect of the movies, which is that the magic shows themselves mostly consist of the Four Horseman strolling around a stage, finishing each other's sentences. I've never seen a performance that works like that.
Thaddeus Bradley was Morgan Freeman, and I don't think that he held himself responsible for the death of Lionel Shrike, but that the first movie asked us to believe that Mark Ruffalo's death during a rather boring escapology caper with a rusty safe was the fault of, in order, (1) Morgan Freeman for “goading” Shrike, a word that is repeated so often it loses all meaning; (2) Michael Caine, who owned the insurance company that refused to pay out Shrike's life insurance; (3) a French bank, for the same - though why Shrike had a life insurance policy with Crédit Républican de Paris (which is fictional, by the way) isn't clear; (4) the steel company that manufactured the safe; (a distant 5) Shrike himself. If we don't accept this framing of the primal scene, Ruffalo's actions are utterly unconscionable. Which of course it is.
Oh god also, remember how a couple of times Woody Harrelson forgets what mentalism is and thinks that he's actually psychic? Much to say here - about whether there is a meaningful difference between "real magic" and fictional prestidigitation that could never be carried out in real life, but which you can fix in post. But a magician never reveals his tricks. Or does he? No. Just when you think he does, that's when he really doesn't. And the time that he looks as though he's doing nothing, that's when he's doing the most of all. So watch me, watch as closely as you can - don't take your eye off the ball, not even for a second — and bam, whack, that's when I've got you. Or have I? Yes. No. You'll never know.
She was a real girl, the Shrike, she had hair in her armpits.
Danny: YES, but the only problem with that is that Morgan Freeman was an ESTABLISHED PART of Shrike's act — so any “goading” that came from him had been previously agreed-upon! So the safe company with the shoddy materials — that was genuinely unanticipated. But he knew Morgan Freeman was part of his act!!
I share your delight in the absolutely dead-eyed way Lizzy Caplan and Dave Franco deliver, “Not long ago, we were tricked.” I could watch them striding around a stage hyping each other up, forever. Watching generally-charismatic people (in odd and unexpected ways, but I’ve experienced all four of them as charismatic at various points) deliver such flatness and mutedness, coupled with total mania, is absolutely unmissable. At one point (during their first-ever-show), Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson psych one another into giving each other a high five, on-stage....and then they give each other a high-five. And the audience loses it. And that's what Scientology videos are like: It’s obvious what the source of the energy is (“seeming energetic”), but totally unpredictable when it comes to guessing what's going to make everyone start screaming.
Woody Harrelson couldn't possibly be psychic. Could he? Maybe you're just imagining it. Or are you? But how would you know if he did hypnotize you? When you don't remember being hypnotized, that is when I carried you. And we were never in a plane at all.
Grace: Okay, I don't need to keep going over this point about the death of Lionel Shrike, but my point is that the first movie requires us to think Morgan Freeman is responsible for Shrike's death (or else we would find Ruffalo's actions monstrous, and he needs to be salvaged as the movie's hero). We learn later that the goading was part of the act — but even if it wasn't, so the fuck what? If Morgan Freeman told you to jump in a river, would you? And if you did, and died, would your son embark on a decades-long caper to frame him for the theft of millions of dollars and incarcerate him? Not, thankfully, in this world.
Danny: I wouldn’t, but just when you thought I wouldn’t the most...that’s when I was woulding hardest of all...
I went to see the first Now You See Me with my dad, one of the only times I can recall doing anything other than weekly grocery shopping with only my dad and no other family. I do not remember the circumstances as to why just he and I ended up seeing a movie together but I remember he wanted to see some zombie or apocalypse movie but it ended up being sold out and he was like "what if we drive to the other movie theater and see if we can catch it there" and I, (who did not want to see a zombie and/or apocalypse movie which makes me question even more why I was there but WAS, along with a friend, in a deep magician movie phase during which we kept trying to watch both the illusionist and the prestige but kept getting them mixed up and watched the illusionist like 3 times and the prestige none) was like "OR we could see this magic movie, it looked pretty cool in the trailer, it has morgan freeman" whomst I don't actually know if my dad likes but I just kind of assume dads are morgan freeman fans by default, but somehow I convinced him and we saw it.
Anyway recalling all that now after reading this post it strikes me that those were the most fitting possible circumstances under which to see this movie. Thank you.
My best friend and I decided to watch this movie because of your & Grace's conversation about it and it was really dumb and fun, so thank you! Maybe nearly 2/3rds of the way through we pulled up this newsletter again to read your last line and a few other descriptions (especially about how Harrelson should be arrested) and I could barely get through them for laughing.