Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Movie review: The Illusionist ***


Edward Norton stars as a magician and Jessica Biel portrays a duchess who assists with a performance in The Illusionist


The magician pardon me, ze illusionist sits before his audience. He is quiet, and his viewers are riveted. The flicker of the gaslights at the lip of the stage plays across his face. His head is bowed, his eyes are narrowed. A vein jumps on his forehead. Sweat appears on his brow and runs down his cheeks and is mopped up by his goatee which thins into an angular Mephistopheles.

If this were a David Cronenberg picture, a few seconds later his head would explode. Instead, surrounded by red velvet and a yellowish autumnal glow of 19th-century Austria, before a crowd that believes this lanky man has magic powers, he concentrates until the figure of a child shimmers before him. The audience gasps. A police inspector rushes the stage, and the image evaporates. He is hereby arrested for, um, crimes against the empire.

Ta da.

The Illusionist is a Grade A slab of thick, generous Hollywood ham, and Eisenheim the Merely Competent is the cheese; he s played by Edward Norton. The Illusionist is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, which in Hollywood code means a cast mumbling in low baritones about illusion and the nature of reality and downturn of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there s a duchess under the thumb of a prince who pinches his cigarettes just so, which makes you think: Jerk.

In short, a good, tacky time.

The Illusionist is a real movie movie its pleasure lies purely in its overstuffed opulence and attention to the romantic notions of how swanky historical entertainment is meant to appear and sound when you go to the movies. (Namely, every actor should have a different accent; but you shouldn t notice.) If you have a picture in your head, it s likely something akin to the austere PBS series Mystery! What Neil Burger s second movie reminded me of though, strangely enough, was an old supper club that hasn t changed its menu in decades; the decor has a whiff of mustiness and the meal is merely adequate, but you settle in, dig in, and are surprised how cozy the illusion of quality can feel.

Quality ingredients help.

Burger did a fine job adapting the short story by Steven Millhauser, which I remember from Esquire, and on the page concerns ghosts and spiritualism and a magician who crosses the boundaries between life and the afterlife and whose supposed powers threaten the stability of a vast empire if he can raise the dead, the wisdom goes, which empires will employ him? It hints at the calamity awaiting Europe during the next century.

Well, forget all that.

It s in here, I suppose; there s nothing quite so provocative as a treatise on power and revolution, and even the puzzle that forms the murder-mystery plot isn t very puzzling the ending, which happens as the film slacks and loses momentum, is a classic example of an audience left wondering: Huh ... no kidding ... wow ... I thought ... wait, what?

Don t get caught up on that.

The film plays mainly as flashback, and that thick tangle of plot tendrils is what s fun about it. Like the billowing gowns worn by Jessica Biel, if you were to pick at the material, you d find less there than you thought but no seamstress dare unravel what would unspool in a cinch. Biel plays the childhood sweetheart of Norton s Eisenheim. During his stage act, Biel s fiance, the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell, sucking at his cheeks for effect), encourages her to play along with Eisenheim and be his subject. On stage, they recognize each other from childhood. The Crown Prince feels threatened, intrigued, threatened ... embarrassed ... and embarrassed again.

Enter Paul Giamatti.

God bless Paul Giamatti.

He makes it easier to come to work in the morning. Here he plays the police inspector (and the film s narrator). He ties the plot together as he investigates Eisenheim and demands to know if he trafficking in black arts or just a student of the con.

Burger doesn t possess Eisenheim s talent for smooth moves; he overcompensates for a thin short story by piling on the plot. The film lurches near the end and grows pompous just as you thought you were having fun. The magic effects are a bit too obviously 1s and 0s; and though the picture looks exquisite, the actual frugality of it all (it s low budget, but don t tell anyone) shows itself with a bit of fray at the edges.

But Giamatti knows what he s in. Biel, who could easily put aside her pin-up reputation, reveals herself a graceful presence; Norton looks constipated. Giamatti, however, savors the pungent corn of the dialogue. He relishes the overindulgence. The Illusionist has the look of faded antiques and washed-out paintings. You can smell the horses trotting along the cobblestones, brushing through piles of leaves. It s marvelous sleight of hand: a great movie until you wave your hand through it. Then you realize The Illusionist is a diversion.

Christopher Borrelli

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