EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - People across the world fall in love with so-called "movie magic"; Neil Burger's new film The Illusionist (*** out of ****) turns our fascination with magic into an entertaining allegory of sorts about how we all respond to it in our different ways.
The film, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, is ostensibly about Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician whose spectacular feats attracts the consternation of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). It also has elements of a love triangle to it, as Eisenheim finds out that a supposedly long-lost childhood female friend (Jessica Biel) is now a duchess attached to Leopold. But, at its heart, The Illusionist is really about how easily some people fall under the spell of the unknown that is conjured up by magic, how others dismiss it altogether, and how some people are torn between wanting to believe in the purity of the illusions and trying to figure out how it's done.
And isn't that the way we all seem to react to movies in general? With a mix of curiosity and awe? That, most people would agree, is its appeal, and Burger, who directed and wrote the screenplay (an adaptation of a short story by Steven Millhauser), puts that idea front and center in a film that generates a lot of its considerable appeal from the way it awakens your sense of awe at magic and keeps you guessing. Eisenheim may be the main "illusionist" of this story, but Burger is the real magician of this particular film.
Burger uses an obviously strong command of film style to lead us into the world he creates: under Dick Pope's cinematography, Vienna becomes awash in beautifully burnished brown tones. And, in signalling time shifts in the narrative---most notably an early flashback recounting Eisenheim's early years---Burger uses a grainier film stock (it looks like found documentary footage) and even uses iris-ins and iris-outs to create a surreal sense in us. The point, ultimately, is to create a kind of dark dreamlike storybook atmosphere to the film: to create a sense that not everything you see is meant to be taken literally.
So absolute believability is not necessarily something that one should look for in The Illusionist, because the movie is, in part, about the power of illusion, the power of image. One should also not expect to have all the film's questions answered, either (even with a final twist that, in typical Usual Suspects fashion, tries to recast the entire movie in a different light than we initially thought). We never exactly learn, for instance, how Eisenheim is able to conjure up all those apparitions in his magic act. But then, a magician---whether it's Eisenheim or Neil Burger---doesn't reveal his secrets...
Eisenheim may be the main attraction of this story---he is the magician after all---but most of the story is told from the point-of-view of inspector Uhl, who turns out to be the film's most complex and dynamic character. Unlike some of the other characters in the story, Uhl doesn't have a set opinion toward Eisenheim: he's entranced by his magic, yet at the same time he is suspicious of not only how he accomplishes his tricks, but eventually he becomes suspicious of his motives. He also has a personal stake in taking Eisenheim down: if Leopold is successful in his plan to overthrow his father in Budapest and take the throne for himself, Uhl would become his right-hand man.
Edward Norton may get top billing---and he's certainly not bad, although personally I found him rather dull here---but Paul Giamatti commands attention from beginning to end with the film's standout performance. Much of it probably has to do with the fact that Uhl is kind of a stand-in for the audience. He is---just as we are---trying to figure out what's really going on underneath it all, trying to figure out what's real and what isn't. (Uhl is the only character that gets voiceover narration in the film.) So yes, of course we'll respond more to his character than even to Eisenheim. What Giamatti adds is an acute understanding of the conflicted nature of his character: how he wants to believe in the illusions, yet also how interested he is in taking apart the illusion. He's, at different points in the film, both the villain and the hero.
One other aspect worthy of mention: Philip Glass---known for minimalist scores which tend to repeat certain musical patterns endlessly---contributes a surprisingly rich score that adds to the mysterious atmosphere and period flavor and yet remains resolutely Glass-ian.
In the end, I suppose one could say that one is not necessarily left with much at the end of The Illusionist except the glow of a good cinematic illusion, skillfully wrought. Nevertheless, this film is a fun ride that, through its storytelling and its elegant visual style, implicates all of us in the way it plays with our expectations and the way it keys us up to applaud at Eisenheim's illusions, both small-scale and large. It might not be a masterpiece---perhaps the film could have been more daring with its illusion-versus-reality games, really given us a good mindfuck---but, for what it is, it's one of the more genuinely pleasurable films of the summer, especially because it's so unselfconscious about itself.
P.S. I mentioned a last-minute twist. I must also admit that, about halfway through the film, I had a pretty good idea that the film was probably going to have some kind of perspective-altering concluding twist, and I pretty much figured out what that twist would be. If I figured it out, I'm pretty sure someone else will figure it out early on as well. And yet somehow, I wasn't too annoyed by that: in magic, it's all about the fun of the illusion, and The Illusionist works the same way too.