STARRING Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel
DIRECTED BY Neil Burger
Opens Friday, August 18
Draped in the pretensions of an art film and bejewelled with a devoted cast, The Illusionist appears to be a clever sleight of hand. "I know magic," it declares, posing dramatically behind its cape and bitchin goatee. Keep your eye on the shifting cards, though, as esthetics give way to sloppy writing and a lazy ending. Like a cheating street hustler who dazzles with razzmatazz and fluttering fingers, the film isnt so much a magic trick or illusion as it is a con.
Against the backdrop of 19th century Vienna, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) finds himself in an affair with childhood love, Princess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). The Princess is betrothed to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Tragedy intervenes and takes her away from both men. A broken-hearted Eisenheim embarks to inflame political dissent with his magic show as the chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) attempts to unravel the mystery of the Princesss death.
Part Harlequin romance, political intrigue and murder mystery, narratives awkwardly collide to occasionally create an intriguing scene. None of these involve the embarrassing love story between the Princess and Eisenheim. The affair has all the epic flourish of an episode of Dawsons Creek and is highlighted by lines like "Ive travelled the world and learned all its mysteries, except for why my heart couldnt let you go." Intrigue is also avoided in most of the scenes involving Eisenheims magic tricks. Forgoing practical effects, the film opts for obvious computer generated trickery. Apparently Victorian magicians did their magic on iBooks.
As jumbled as the film feels, the sharp performances by the cast (outside of Jessica Biel, who seems to stare into the camera thinking, "Boy, acting sure is hard") and Dick Popes gorgeous cinematography assure you this all works out at the end. Instead, the film pulls back the curtain to reveal
another curtain. Its an ending that leaves you feeling cheated and cheapens everything that came before.
For brief moments, the film puts on a good show hinting at a worthwhile conclusion. Flashing a smile of gold, it whispers promises of a good time. But when all the cards are revealed and the handkerchiefs all pulled out, The Illusionist has run off with your Rolex and dignity.