Note: The following discusses the ending of Now You See Me in detail and contains spoilers.
The Now You See Me screenplay is so flawed on a structural level, it should be studied in writing classes.
Granted, the rest of the script (credited to Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt) is certainly lacking, with corny dialogue and underwritten characters, neither of which is helped by uneven performances (Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson are terrific; Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are sleepwalking; Mélanie Laurent and Mark Ruffalo are, too; Isla Fisher is unwatchable; Dave Franco is, um, Dave Franco) and glossy but shallow direction from Louis Leterrier. But the overwhelming bulk of the film’s failures comes from the script’s core. The arrangement of the story’s elements just doesn’t work, which is bad enough, and then we’re tossed a twist-for-twist’s-sake ending that makes no sense on any level.
Our first problem arrives about half an hour in, after we’ve spent plenty of mildly enjoyable time with a quartet of street magician scoundrels. In a better film, they’d be fun to watch, especially when they’re dealing with low rent tricks, but even when they graduate to Las Vegas glamour and a stage show buzzing with how’d they do that? there’s enough potential there to keep us hoping things will pick up.
Things do not pick up. The main riddle involves a supposed bank heist, done live on stage, and here’s where the wheels come off: the script’s focus abruptly changes from the rogues to the cops, as grizzled FBI agent Ruffalo takes the case. Our most interesting characters are pushed into the background, forgotten until the next big magic show.
Except, well, not quite. The movie still gives us bits and pieces of the magicians planning their next move. What the script is trying to do, I think, is deliver a caper movie where we follow both the cops and the robbers, unaware that this sort of caper movie – the kind built around surprise instead of character – only works when you pick a side. Either we’re with the cops, wondering how a heist has been pulled, or we’re with the robbers, wondering how they’ll get away. To shuffle between both (while trying desperately to hide the story’s mysteries) leaves the script awkward and wobbly.
But that’s nothing compared to the finale, in which it’s revealed Ruffalo’s character is the mysterious puppet master behind the whole thing. I don’t want to say this can’t be done, because I’m sure a good script could figure out how to make such a reveal work, but here? Nope.
You just can’t have a hero struggle to crack a mystery, only to reveal hedunit. As handled here, the switcheroo negates the intimate scenes that come before. We’re given no reason for the fed to play dumb when dealing with Laurent’s Interpol agent, no reason for him to weave through various stages of paranoia, no reason for his complete apparent innocence. He’s the audience’s surrogate, learning as we learn, suspecting when we suspect. And then, suddenly, the twist is just there, flopped down in front of us not as the crafty solution to a riddle but as a pointless reversal on a lie. It’d be no different had the following exchange occurred:
Man: “Hi, my name is Jeff.”
Woman: “Hi, Jeff.”
Man: “A ha! My name is actually Steve! What a shocking and completely unexpected twist!”
Now, had the writers been careful enough with their story structure, and had they been more detailed with the character, and had they pulled back from the idea of character-as-audience, such a twist could possibly work. But here, the writers offer no added layers, assuming a rug-pull would be sufficient. It’s not. It’s a lazy man’s surprise.
Such laziness seeps into other corners of the screenplay as well. You can’t spend most of your movie getting all sly by revealing how they did it – it’s so simple, you see, once we reveal the strings and the mirrors – but also toss in a “magic is real” subplot that leaves some – not all, just some – of the tricks unexplained. That doesn’t create wonder, it creates sloppiness. It’s a cop out: any mystery the writers can’t actually answer, they just say it wasn’t an illusion. That doesn’t work in a movie like this, where the logic of real-life answers is vital to the puzzle, and the puzzle is vital to the entire tone of the picture.
So from its perspective, its reveal, and the very nature of the riddles that fill the movie, there’s absolutely no structural support to anything that happens on screen. This leaves Now You See Me as nothing but flashy and hollow, a swindler trying to be a wit and only making it halfway.