by Steve Habrat
French director Louis Leterrier is the type of guy who makes movies that you watch on HBO. They’re the stuff of sweatpants and lazy Sunday afternoons when you have absolutely nothing else pressing to do. You really don’t have to put your brain to work when you watch any of his movies; you just have to be in the mood to watch some slick action scenes guided by Jason Statham or Jet Li. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy seeing his full-throttle Marvel offering The Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The last time we saw Leterrier, he was tangling with the gods in 2010s Clash of the Titans, a film that was met with almost unanimous negative criticism. Now Letterier returns with the Ocean’s Eleven-with-a-wand studio boardroom crime caper Now You See Me, a fairly entertaining but poorly drawn action-heist hybrid that seems tailor-made for Twittering teens and those audience members out there who are easily impressed with even the slightest plot twist. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, in fact Now You See Me is a fun and simple distraction, yet it feels like the type of movie that you watch on HBO on a lazy Sunday. Now You See Me has plenty of snappy action, a plot comprised of infinite plot twists, and cool performances from a mixture of veterans and newcomers, but it lacks substantial character development and the blue-in-the-face exposition bogs down the third act. Leterrier makes damn sure no one walks away scratching their head and asking their date what the hell just happened.
Now You See Me introduces us to four street magicians, Daniel Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (played by Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (played by Dave Franco), who are brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and one year later are performing as “The Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas. The group, who has become a huge worldwide sensation, announce one evening that they are going to rob a bank with the help of one lucky audience member. The man who is chosen to help out with the trick is seemingly teleported to his bank in Paris, where he is asked to activate a vacuum that sucks the money from the vault and dumps it down on the cheering Vegas crowd. The stunt, which captures the world’s attention and turns “The Four Horsemen” into media superstars, immediately gets the attention of bullheaded FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner, Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (played by Mélanie Laurent). Rhodes and Vargas immediately have the four magicians arrested, but lack of an explanation forces the FBI to release the group. After the group performs another robbery in New Orleans, this time on their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (played by Michael Caine), Rhodes and Vargas are forced to seek help from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), who makes a living revealing the secrets behind magic tricks.
After giving us a brief introduction to each of its characters and their different illusion styles, you begin to think that Now You See Me may just decide to operate in a much more grounded sense. However, this sense of grounded realism disappears completely when the ragtag group is pulled from the streets and united in front of blueprint holograms that look like they were confiscated from Tony Stark’s workshop. Not one of the characters bats an eye or thinks to really ask who has brought them all together. From here on out, Now You See Me goes huge with its magic tricks and its fiery action, all of which completely incinerate character development. While the magic show sequences thrill with their flashing strobe lights, easy-laugh host dialogue, and pounding techno, the real razzle dazzle comes in the middle with its foot chases through thick Mardi Gras crowds, fist fights in cramped New York City apartments, and jittery car chases through stuffy NYC traffic. It is all the usual stuff you want from Leterrier and, more importantly, a summer blockbuster, but you can’t shake the feeling that it is all scaled back fluff that would appear in a late summer toss-offs rather than a frontline May effort.
Much like Ocean’s Eleven, Leterrier puts together a who’s-who of talent to rope in audiences. The leader of the pack is Eisenberg, who proved his acting talents in David Fincher’s staggering The Social Network. He certainly brings some of the self-assured swagger that he applied to Mark Zuckerberg and for the most part it works, but the character is too poorly drawn to be much of a hero here. Eisenberg certainly tries with the character, but he isn’t given much to work with so he just shrugs his shoulders. This phoned-in feeling unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Eisenberg. Harrelson is his usual kooky self as the swindler hypnotist Merritt. He’s another one you expect some heavy lifting from but he doesn’t break much of a sweat. The young Dave Franco (yes, it is the brother of James) seems eager to get people talking, but the script gives him so little to do, the half the time you forget he is even there. Franco gets most of the action scenes and you do get the impression that he could be a future action star, but only time will tell. Fisher is here simply to give the film so much needed sex appeal but even she seems like she is checking her watch over really putting forth much effort. Caine and Freeman both give the typical performance that you’d expect. They seem to be getting a big kick out of the whole thing, which adds some charm to the film. Laurent basically steals the show as the sweet Interpol Agent who is driven by faith. She balances out the almost-too-serious Ruffalo, who seems like he is trying to make up for everyone who is here just for a beefy paycheck.
While Now You See Me is light on its feet, fast-paced, and fairly exciting, the film really deflates when all the smoke and mirrors are pulled away. There is really nothing behind all those wonderful tricks. The characters don’t really develop and Leterrier tacks on a long-winded and rigid explanation at the end of the film when all of the action should have smoothly meshed together. Instead, it just seems all over the place and in a mad dash. It almost feels like the filmmakers don’t really trust the audience to put it all together so they just do it for you. Also, I’m still not sure that they really sold me on the myriad of twists that hit at the end but the crowd I saw it with was marveling like crazy at it. Overall, as an Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, Now You See Me entertains, but it lacks a certain martini buzz strut and tuxedo-cool confidence to really keep it aloft. It comes off plastic and artificial, with only a smidgeon of heart inside that pretty cool premise. If I were you, I’d probably wait for it to come to HBO and watch it from the comfort of your couch. It’s small screen entertainment from beginning to end, but there isn’t particularly anything wrong with that.
by Steve Habrat
It has become a custom for Hollywood to sneak a star-studded comedy into theaters during the last days of the summer movie season. It aims to lure in the remaining college and senior high school crowds who are looking to waste one of their last evenings of the summer. I will be the first to admit that I have started looking forward to these films, which include strokes of comedic brilliance like The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, Tropic Thunder, Superbad, and Pineapple Express. Each of these films is rambunctious in their own right and offered a much-needed break from the countless waves of CGI fakery. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a good comedy to lighten the mood? This summer, we have Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less and it seems that the comedic spell that blesses all the said films above did not cast a spell on this star studded heist comedy. In fact, 30 Minutes or Less isn’t blessed with much at all. It’s just consistently repulsive and foul mouthed. To make matters worse, it squanders all the talent that is attached to it every step of the way. I kept getting the impression that the film was a hell of a lot of fun to make but sadly, we the audience aren’t allowed in on the action.
Perhaps it was the concept itself, which revolves around a loser pizza delivery guy named Nick (Played by the always welcome Jesse Eisenberg) who apparently enjoys getting high and slinging pizza for a living. He works for Vito’s Pizza, who guarantees you get your pie in thirty minutes or less. Nick shacks up with Chet (Played by the always welcome Aziz Ansari), a dorky grade school teacher who finds joy in online dating and playing Call of Duty. One evening after a spat between the nebbish best friends, Nick finds himself abducted by the loudmouthed Dwayne (Played by the deadpan Danny McBride) and his clueless partner in crime Travis (Played by the childlike oaf Nick Swardson). They strap a bomb to Nick and demand that he rob a bank. Dwayne and Travis need a hundred grand so they can pay a Mexican hit man to knock off Dwayne’s wealthy father and run off with the inheritance. Naturally, chaos ensues and we are bombarded for eighty-three minutes with one moldy joke after another.
30 Minutes or Less is a brief film and it benefits from refusing to let the nonsensical events drag out for longer than they have to. The irony to all of this is that the film is entirely too long and it could be executed in, well, thirty minutes or less. There is drawn out bickering that disguises itself as character development yet we could care less about any specific character. It forces in a frail love story and you would honestly forget it was even there if the film didn’t constantly keep reminding you about it. The film also crams in a bizarre side story for the senseless Mexican hit man with a lisp. He seems there just so the film will be over eighty minutes and get a theatrical run. McBride, who is usually welcome comic relief, spews stale and raunchy adlibs as if they are outtakes from his hit show Eastbound & Down. Eisenberg, Ansari, and Swardson all flail around in front of the camera desperately attempting to land a joke that works but nothing really stands out from any of them. It’s a disgrace, really, as all are quite talented. They are forced to try to top one another every step of the way. What makes the film an even bigger disappointment is that director Fleischer, who made the goofily self-aware Zombieland, demonstrates none of the wit he brandished with his previous film. It’s just piercing and irritate.
To give you an example of this movie going experience, when the film quieted down for a few seconds (trust me, it’s rare in this one), you could actually hear one audience member sawing logs. It had me checking the time to see how much longer I needed to sit through it. It only managed to draw a few remote laughs from the audience members that remained, as I saw at least two groups of people (apparently families) head for the exit early on. At least it had the sixteen year olds sitting next to me doubled over in laughter, because it barely drew a chuckle from me. Their eyes also almost popped out of their eye sockets at the gratuitous nudity the film offers at one point.
All in all, the film is unremarkable. It’s not flat out unpleasant like The Hangover Part II but it’s certainly an underachiever similarly to its main protagonist. I just sat wishing I could re-watch McBride in Pineapple Express, or Eisenberg in Zombieland, or Ansari in episodes of Parks & Recreation, or Swardson in Grandma’s Boy. The film doesn’t even attempt to be sweet natured in its more subdued moments, as that is what made those other later summer comedies go down easier. I have the sneaking suspicion that when 30 Minutes or Less departs from theaters, many will never remember it even existed. It’s a comedic misfire. Grade: D+