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Strange Magic?

March 7, 2007

It’s commonplace to refer to the magic of movies, but, as arts, movies and magic have little in common. Movies ask us to suspend our disbelief. Magic courts our disbelief. Puzzling over how a movie did what it did is, at best, a subsidiary pleasure of watching a movie. Puzzling over how a magician does his tricks is more often than not the only pleasure of watching a magic show.

Magic, in the sense of a magician’s performance art, does not hold up well when transferred from stage to fictional film. An effect that is astonishing on stage becomes pedestrian on screen. (There’s a reason nearly every kind of celebrity in America has been in the movies, except magicians. We know how the tricks are done in movies.)

The trick, so to speak, that any good movie about magic must pull off is to create a reality so believable that we’re willing to buy into the magic. We need to be so engulfed in the film’s reality that we watch the magic tricks like the spectators in the film, not the spectators in the film’s audience. Like sports movies, movies about magic must be totally convincing just to be good.

The Illusionist isn’t credible enough to be very good, but it does offer the pleasure of a well-executed but standard magic show. You won’t walk away from it marveling at its achievement, but you will be entertained for most of its duration.

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist tells the story of Eisenheim (a typically instense Edward Norton), a late 19th-century magician in the mold of Houdini who delights audiences in Vienna with seemingly impossible tricks: he makes an orange seed sprout instantly into a tree with ripe fruit, he trains butterflies to carry a handkerchief, he turns gloves into crows. His origins, as recounted by Chief Inspector Uhl (an overly breathy Paul Giamatti), are, unsurprisingly, mysterious. Legend has it that he learned his craft as a child from a traveling magician sitting under a tree. When the magician finished his lesson, he vanished. And so did the tree.

As a boy, Eisenheim–then named Edward Abramowitz–fell in love with Sofia, the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic family. Their scenes together as adolescents are shot to look like a silent film, overexposed in the center but dark around the edges, as if a spotlight is shining on the screen. It’s an interesting effect, to be sure, but it unfortunately serves only to idealize Eisenheim’s childhood to the point of unreality. By the time we meet Eisenheim as an adult, arriving in Vienna after decades of traveling the world, he is already a self-assured, secretive master of his craft. He is interesting, but there’s no reason for the viewer to identify with him. He’s too in control to be sympathetic.

One of Eisenheims’s first shows in Vienna is attended by Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the son of the king, and an entourage including the woman he hopes to marry, played by Jessica Biel. Fifty dollars to the first person who guesses who the woman is. When Leopold volunteers her to participate in one of Eisenheim’s illusions, Eisenheim instantly recognizes her as Sofia–and the feelings from their youth return as well.

Despite being dressed up in an overly complex narrative structure, The Illusionist is really a straightforward tale of a man of humble means who loves a woman of high station but is thwarted by her villanous lover. It’s a premise as old as Dickens. While their romance is so synthetic it makes Mr. and Mrs. Smith look sophisticated, there’s something endearing about the movie’s attachment to hopelessly out-of-date tropes. It’s not enchanting enough for the archtypes to avoid being cliches, but it’s fast-paced enough that we scarcely notice how contrived the whole thing is.

The story gets a bit more interesting when Eisenheim overhauls his show into a spiritualist showcase. Sitting on a chair on the stage, dressed in only a white shirt, black pants and black suspenders, he concentrates, as if in a trance, on a spot on the stage. His eyes pinched, his brow sweating, Norton holds up his hand, palm out, as if he might just conjure a dragon from thin air. The result is nearly as good. He brings back the dead, in an effect that is best likened to a hologram.

These performances are so convincing that the people of Vienna begin to look to Eisenheim as a religious figure and perhaps, a political leader. This threat alarms Uhl more than the Prince, whose vendetta against Eisenheim stems mostly from the way Eisenheim publicly embarassed him at a performance at the royal estate. The fact that Eisenheim and Sofia are having an affair doesn’t appear to bother the crown prince much; he’s more interested in Sofia for her family’s political capital than for her body or heart. Between the cult of personality surrounding Eisenheim and Leopold’s machinations to take over the empire, there’s potential for a much more interesting movie here, perhaps one that sees political echoes between Eisenheim the celebrity and Leopold the aspiring dictator. But ultimately, Eisenheim’s love for Sofia is the only story Burger is interested in telling. As the film’s tagline, “Nothing is what it seems,” suggests, there is a twist ending–which is about as obvious as a sixth-grader’s boner at his first dance.

Theoretically, Giamatti’s character should hold this all together, but he doesn’t. Detectives typically make great protagonists, but there’s something about Giamatti’s performance that mildly repulsed me. In an attempt to escape from his sad-sack typecasting, he erred on the side of gravitas, making his character so exxageratedly weighty that he’s sometimes difficult to take seriously.

Strangely, though, despite the film’s numerous flaws, I can’t say I hated The Illusionist. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it, although it certainly left no lasting impression. Dwelling on the twist ending certainly doesn’t help; like most twist endings, the conclusion’s logic collapses under sustained scrutiny. But while I was watching it, I was entertained and gave little thought to how silly the whole thing was. I guess that’s what they call the magic of the movies.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2007 9:14 pm

    For what it’s worth, I read somewhere (I forget where) that Giamatti was impersonating James Mason. I agree it’s not a great movie, but it’s a much better one than last year’s other film about magic/magicians, THE PRESTIGE.

  2. March 15, 2007 1:33 am

    Interesting. I can definitely see that. The only problem is that James Mason was acting in the ’30s and ’40s. You can’t get away with that kind of highly affected style these days.

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