A moody drama set in Vienna about a century ago, The Illusionist asks several questions. Is famed illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) just an adroit trickster or is he really in touch with the supernatural? Can he use his skills to win back Sophie (Jessica Biel), the love of his life, from nasty Austrian Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell)? Can Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) sort it all out?
The premise is intriguing and the handsome-looking film is generally well-arranged, save for a series of explanatory flashes at the end that are so full of holes that their presence is more annoying than insightful. But then again, I was already pissed off because of a monumentally stupid decision on the filmmakers’ part to use state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery for Eisenheim’s illusions.
So what’s the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that, in a movie where we’re supposed to wonder whether a performer’s illusions are the real thing or simply the result of an amazing combination of sleight-of-hand, misdirection and clever apparatuses, we see images that the best modern-day illusionists could not create.
Example: In one scene, Eisenheim stands on a bare stage and stares at the space in front of him. In a few seconds, a bit of wispy smoke appears — not from behind a curtain or out of his sleeve, but in mid-air — then gradually develops and morphs into the fully-articulated form of a woman, who proceeds to answer a few questions before disappearing into mid-air. No boxes, no curtains, it all happens right before the eyes of the theater audience and, of course, ours as well.
Call me fussy, but what’s the fun in that? David Copperfield, with all of his money and custom equipment, could not make a wisp of smoke appear out of nothing, turn into a woman and then disappear.
So the biggest of the movie’s big questions should be: Is famed illusionist Eisenheim the master of the supernatural that he appears to be, or are the filmmakers too dense to realize that if the illusions don’t look like they could have been faked by an extremely talented artist, then there is no suspense whatsoever?