Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Perhaps I'll make you disappear.
There's a running gag in The Illusionist about the elusive secret behind the trick of an orange tree that materializes from thin air. And while the trick is apparently based on a real one, the answer here is obvious: computers. Whenever famed magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) performs one of his increasingly astounding sleights of hand, period detail gives way to crisp, jarring CGI where practical effects would have been more compelling and believable. This detail alone wouldn't be enough to sink The Illusionist, but it is unfortunately typical of a film that promises magic and mystery yet remains disappointingly literal-minded.
Set in early 20th-century Vienna, the film opens with Eisenheim onstage arrest at the hands of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), right-hand man to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As Uhl tells Leopold the story leading up to Eisenheim's arrest, the film jumps back to the illusionist's childhood romance with Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). The two are separated because of their class differences, and the boy sets off on a years-long voyage around the world, returning as an expert illusionist. He is soon reunited to Sophie, who is now engaged to the prince, and they must find a way to...this is as boring to write as it is to watch. Basically, The Illusionist is a formulaic love triangle gussied up with turn-of-the-century tomfoolery. Though writer/director Neil Burger has Eisenheim deliver several ponderous speeches about life, the universe and everything to the audience, he's content to let his film be driven by the machinations of a period mystery.
The cast tries gamely all around, but the characters are underwritten and never make much of an impression. Norton is usually dependable for his ability to embody a character, but Eisenheim is never more than a vague collection of period details, and the actor simply isn't given enough to work with here. The same goes for Biel, who isn't given much to do except look pretty. Only Giamatti makes any sort of an impression - he seems to be making a deliberate departure from his usual schlep typecasting, and he creates a compelling enough inspector Uhl, torn between ambition and conscience, that we laugh along with him in the film's final scene. But even Giamatti is buried between piles of hamhanded visual cues and the film's misguided look, which aims to recreate the faded quality of early silents but fails entirely by overstressing the effect (probably every third shot irises out). I'm a big defender of style for style's sake, but even the style here misses the point. The excellent score by Philip Glass, like the actors, deserves a better picture.
The second half of the film revolves around a mystery that resolves itself in the final scene with one of those everything-comes-together montages that reveals nothing more than the director's desperate wish to be M. Night Shyamalan. The worst thing about The Illusionist is the way that the twist undercuts any hope of wonder (much like Shyamalan's The Village, actually). Burger has his characters repeatedly remind us that there is much truth in illusions; unfortunately, it's not a sentiment that the director seems to believe much himself.