In 2006, two films about purveyors of illusions hit theaters, and much like the battle between 30 Rock and Studio 60 (which ironically both premiered that year as well I believe), only one would prevail. Of course, the film that made the biggest cultural headway (and helped to catapult Christopher Nolan into the public imagination) was the Christian Bale/Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Prestige. But, over the years, the other magic themed film from that year, The Illusionist, has gained a considerable cult-following and I’ve meant to watch it for years now. And, I must sadly report that I found the film disappointing. Like any magic trick properly explained, The Illusionist is a hollow, fleeting experience with only just enough flashes of magic o keep it interesting.
I say that it’s hollow and fleeting because The Illusionist has joined films like War Horse as proof that you can have a technically competent and well-executed film that I won’t find especially enjoyable when the the important pieces (plotting, characterization) are merely shadows in fact. Because, like the ethereal projections that Eisenheim the Illusionist (American History X‘s Edward Norton) conjures late in the film, there is nothing substantive beneath The Illusionist‘s surface. With flat, one-dimensional characters and torpid pacing that seems to revel in its own predictability, this film tested my patience to sit through its motions and only earned my attention on rare occasions.
Years after being pushed away from his childhood love, almost supernaturally gifted illusionist Eisenheim moves to Vienna to practice his trade. But during a packed performance attended by none other than the crown prince of Hungary, Eisenheim sees his childhood love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), for the first time in years. A contessa herself, Sophie is now engaged to the Crown Prince, but seeing Eisenheim brings up feelings that both thought were lost. As Eisenheim becomes even more popular with the Viennese people and embarrasses the Crown Prince with his tricks, Eisenheim is investigated by Inspector Uhl (Private Parts‘s Paul Giamatti) for any possible wrongdoing. But, of course, nobody knows the massive trick Eisenheim has up his sleeve.
I tend to give more in-depth discussions of characters and plots here, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much going on underneath the surface of The Illusionist. Characters are exactly what they seem, and if you are able to pay even the most remote attention, things play out as you think they will. Although I actually enjoyed the ending (mostly for the film paying off how I expected things to turn out), it is also 100% predictable and even then, it glosses over certain things that would have made more sense with better foreshadowing. Though Eisenheim is meant to be mysterious, the film’s dogged insistence on not fleshing out his character any robs the film of nearly any ability to generate audience sympathy.
Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors of his generation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch him in Primal Fear or American History X and not simply stand in awe of his mastery of his craft. But, like everything else in The Illusionist, his performance in this film is simply “meh.” He can’t maintain his Prussian accent for more than half a scene, and the writing provides him with very little to work with in strengthening the characterization of this bland magician. Jessica Biel is just an outright mediocre actress at best, and she showed nothing new as the Contessa. But, thankfully, like all films he’s in, Paul Giamatti shines as the tireless investigator because he’s just always a champ.
I’m going to keep this review short. I want to play a bit of The Last of Us tonight and keep catching up on Game of Thrones. Hell, maybe if I’m lucky I can even watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which is the next film on my blog list that I have waiting at home from Netflix. And honestly, there was just nothing special about this film. It wasn’t that the movie was bad. And, I actually really enjoyed the cinematography at times, but there was nothing astounding about The Illusionist. And it had enough glaring flaws in terms of its characterization that I couldn’t ever fully (or even mostly) invest in this tale. For fans of the technical aspects of film-making, The Illusionist has some secrets to reveal, but everybody else could probably stay home.
Final Score: B-