August 17th, 2006
As much as Paul Giamatti works up a sweat trying to add some pizzazz to this picture, his efforts cannot boot “The Illusionist” past a mediocre sit. Lacking a wondrous take on magic, the film is primarily a drag, held back by Edward Norton’s lifeless performance and needless special effects that ruin the primary function of the film: to misdirect and amaze.
Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a master illusionist settling down in Vienna to wow the locals with his supernatural gifts of magic. Pleasing the rich and powerful Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) with his act, Eisenheim is stunned to find his beloved childhood girlfriend (Jessica Biel) is about to become the Prince’s new bride. Reigniting a passion inside him, Eisenheim attempts to use his mystifying powers to win her back and thwart the curiosity of Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an official assigned to watch him closely.
Here’s a movie about the con of magic, and it doesn’t contain anything close to awe or wonder. “The Illusionist” is a tepid murder mystery filled with rich, polished images and a craving to keep the audience guessing; unfortunately, it’s lacking a reason why they should get involved in this mess to begin with.
Magic is a trade that has the capacity to glue a viewer to their seat. In the early scenes, director Neil Burger (“Interview with an Assassin”) captures the feeling of thunderstruck confusion, thoroughly evoking turn-of-the-century Vienna and the citizens who piled in nightly to watch Eisenheim dig into his bag of illusions. What confuses me the most about this film are the tricks themselves.
To best illustrate the magician’s hold on otherworldly skills, Burger has employed a steady stream of CG-enhanced visuals to give Eisenheim’s performances a strange, uneasy feel. In fact, there’s no genuine sleight of hand used in “Illusionist,” which severely cleaves away the fun factor when the characters are required to be completely befuddled by the tricks and beg the magician for clues on how he achieved his deceptions. The essential smack of trickery is lost throughout the picture every time an obvious effect is used, which eventually spills over into the story elements when Burger goes for toothless attempts at misdirection.
As romantic period mysteries go, “Illusionist” is a bloodless affair, due mainly to Edward Norton’s unresponsive performance as Eisenheim. The actor looks the part (and loves the outfits), but he lacks a wickedness and danger the role hints at. Fixed on perfecting his pouty magician face, Norton is lapped by much better supporting performances.
One of which is Paul Giamatti, who is the spice “Illusionist” is thirsting for. In a rare performance free from indication and screaming, Giamatti lends Inspector Uhl an entertaining twinge of jealousy as the character flirts with the idea of a man more clever than himself. After a solid first hour of set-up and mystery, Giamatti soon becomes the only element worth watching as Burger strains to maintain the drama.
Adapted from a short story, Burger pads “Illusionist” to the breaking point just so there’s some sense of twirling madness to latch his film onto. The film stumbles badly in the third act, drawing threadbare events out needlessly and ridiculously. I’m not sure there can be a legitimate plot twist in a film called “The Illusionist,” but that doesn’t stop Burger: he goes for broke in the “Usual Suspects” scented final lap, taking his picture from a harmless diversion to an endurance test.
My rating: C