The Illusionist (2006)

Once a magic trick is revealed, it no longer holds the same sort of power over an audience. The mystique is gone, and after seeing it a few more times, it fails to captivate. We don’t gasp in awe every time another person breathes, as we all know how to do it. The Illusionist, a film about magic, explains everything at the end, wrapping up what could have been a very satisfying experience with an expository montage explaining every single sleight of hand throughout. As you might expect, the effect is disappointment.

We begin in medias res, when a magician going by the name of Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is being arrested by the police chief, Walter Uhl (Paul Giamatti). Of course, we don’t know why, although I suspected here that because we’re in some point in the 18-1900s, maybe he’s being arrested for having supernatural powers. Maybe in the film’s timeline, he’s going to be tried as a witch. No such luck, I’m afraid. Instead, it’s really because the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) doesn’t like him very much.

We cut back to Eisenheim’s past, a point in which he learns how to perform magic, meets a young Duchess (Jessica Biel), falls in love, is tragically separated, and then never sees her again. That is, until performing a show for the Crown Prince, he sees that she’s now to marry him. One thing leads to another, Eisenheim becomes an enemy of the State, and it’s up to the police chief to figure out a way to arrest him. All the while, we get to see some interesting magic tricks that may not be tricks at all.

The supernatural plays into things, although for the most part, we’re left guessing what’s real and what’s not. For instance, an early trick — one that Uhl becomes fixated upon — involves growing an orange tree in a matter of moments. Clearly no ordinary man could cheat time like that. Or could he? I’ll leave you to figure it out for yourself, or perhaps you can just let the film tell you, since if you watch it through to the end, you’ll get your answer.

The Illusionist is a film that needed more of an ambiguous ending. Instead of wrapping everything up in a nice box with a pretty bow, it should have been the rabbit going back into the hat, never to be seen from again. By explaining everything, it almost appears to be begging for you to watch it a second time to see if it cheated along the way. But now the I’m aware of when the tricks occur, my intrigue is lost. Like a real magic trick, once I know how it all works, it can no longer astonish me. This movie works best when it always has one more thing to surprise you with, and once it’s out of illusions, it is no longer interesting.

To be fair, it does keep things moving at a fast pace and there are enough tricks to keep you amused for most of its duration. It’s just that the ending serves to undermine previous efforts, and while the film quite clearly wanted me to, I can’t see myself watching The Illusionist again — at least not any time in the near future. Now that the mystery is gone, watching it again would just be disappointing, I think.

While the ending is fairly lackluster, I did have a good time for the majority of The Illusionist‘s running time. Its quick pace kept me from thinking too much about its flaws, the magic tricks scattered throughout are fun, and the actors are strong and have good chemistry, which means that in the scenes where they are our focus, we still aren’t bored. There aren’t very many lulls in the action, meaning that if you’re looking for something to constantly keep you engaged, this film will perform that task admirably.

Basically, The Illusionist is a film that’s enjoyable in the moment, but after it ends, it doesn’t hold up. I can’t see a reason not to watch it, but watching it the once is going to be about all it’s worth. It’s a notch above a background noise film — one that you put on just to have something to distract you from whatever you should be concentrating — as it does have more going for it than most of those, but giving it more thought than the two hours it runs for is probably more than it deserves.

The best parts of the film are the magic tricks, although the middle portion contains few of them. For a movie about a magician, it doesn’t contain as much magic as you might expect, especially later on. At the beginning, they are plentiful and enjoyable, but as The Illusionist drags on, they decrease in frequency and in how impressive they are. I guess what I was looking for was a big, impressive trick at the end to reaffirm the belief that Eisenheim really is the best magician around. Instead, he shows us his best skills first, and anything that comes afterward feels disappointing as a result, as there’s no way to top what came earlier.

The Illusionist is fun but disappointing, coming on strong but telling us too many of its secrets by the time it leaves. Instead of shrouding itself in mystery, it opens up and wants to share with us everything that allowed it to mature. Instead of making us want to watch again in order to see if the sleight of hand holds up, the film loses everything it had built up by revealing it all. While you’re watching, you’ll probably have a good time — the film is too smartly paced to allow you to dwell on its flaws, and the actors are strong — but afterward you might feel disappointed.

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