|The Illusionist (2006)
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell
Director: Neil Burger
I overheard a couple of women coming out of “The Illusionist” talking about how they loved every minute of it. Which is odd, because I found myself strangely annoyed from the very beginning. Pity, too, because Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti are incredibly engaging actors, but the movie they’re trapped in has painfully dull dialogue, and the camera techniques feel as though they were chosen by someone who has read a book about movies but has never actually seen one. By the time the ending arrives – and it’s easily the best thing about the movie – we have suffered through too much mediocre filmmaking to care.
The story begins in Vienna circa 1885, with a young boy whose skills as an illusionist win the heart of Sophie, a girl who holds much high social standing and is therefore unattainable. Fast forward 15 years, where the boy (Norton) is now a successful illusionist who goes by the name of Eisenheim, and Sophie (Jessica Biel) is betrothed to the boorish Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Just like it was in the past, Eisenheim and Sophie cannot be together – Leopold would hunt them down, and likely kill them – and if that weren’t enough, Eisenheim is getting squeezed by Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), one of Leopold’s cronies, on trumped up charges of fraud since Eisenheim refuses to reveal the secrets to his craft.
There is a movie in here somewhere, one with a riveting love story, a dastardly villain, and a great escape. “The Illusionist,” however, isn’t it, as it fumbles nearly every aspect of the story. Sewell is wasted as Leopold, all scowls and bellows, not to mention a crooked mustache that I wanted to rip off his face from his very first scene. The (needless) love scene between Eisenheim and Sophie is shot in soft focus, for God’s sake. The narration is awkward and random, seemingly only to prop up the movie when the movie itself isn’t doing a good enough job of telling the story.
But the movie’s biggest flaw is, for a story about illusion, it is not very good at misdirection. To say more would reveal too much, but if writer/director Neil Burger had spent half as much effort on the first 105 minutes of the movie as he did on the last five, well, we’d have a movie that Bryan Singer would be proud to call his own.
The web site for “The Illusionist” boasts a slew of raves for the movie, and while it is not a requirement of mine to fall in line with the critics’ general consensus (I still maintain that “John Tucker Must Die” is much better than people think, while “Shrek” is much worse), it does give me the sense that I’ve missed something crucial to enjoying the movie. But I felt much better when Kristin Dreyer Kramer, editor-in-chief of nightsandweekends.com, confessed to me afterwards that she started stealing glances at my watch about halfway through. So don’t believe the hype: “The Illusionist” is not what the press, or even the movie itself, thinks it is. If you must see one movie about a magician this year…see “The Prestige.” Granted, I haven’t even seen that movie yet, but it has to be better than this.
There’s not a whole lot to look forward to on the single-disc release of “The Illusionist,” which, despite including an excellent audio commentary with writer/director Neil Burger has absolutely nothing else of real value. Sure, a making-of featurette and an interview with Jessica Biel also appear, but their combined runtime doesn’t even total six minutes.