I won't be the first critic to note that Neil Burger's The Illusionist is the first of two magician themed mysteries this year, with Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, following in two months time. I will, however, be the first critic who says that and immediately follows it with the word "Balls".
The Illusionist takes us back to turn of the century Vienna (turn of the 20th century, not the 21st), where a magician, or Illusionist (title), comes to town. Said Illusionist is played by Edward Norton. Or more to the point, Edward Norton's facial hair. Eisenheim the illusionist strolls into town and puts on a magic show, much to the delight of the crowds. The buzz around Eisenheim grows so much that the crown prince himself simply has to go and see for himself. Sure enough, Prince Leopold's fiancee Sophie turns out to be the grown up version of Sophie, whom a young Eisenheim fell madly in love with many moons ago. They rekindle their passion, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned prince. Naturally, this leads to murder, and a relentless pursuit of the truth courtesy of Chief Inspector Uhl. Will the mystery be solved? Will you ask yourself what is real, and what is... illusion?
It's actually not nearly as stupid as I make it sound, if you can believe it. Sure, Will Arnett's voice would constantly linger in my head every time the word "illusion" was uttered. What matters is that film is for the most part marginally entertaining. What makes it worthwhile are the performances and the look of the film. What makes me angry with it is the ending. More on that in a bit.
Edward Norton has been missed of late. It seemed like he disappeared for awhile there. He's still got it, though. He manages to pull you in, and believe him, even if his accent and face are a little silly. You believe Eisenheim. At least, you want to believe him, which is the greatest trick a magician... excuse me, illusionist, can do. Paul Giamatti portrays the good inspector, and adds another great beard to his mighty collection. Luckily, I can watch Paul Giamatti doing pretty much anything and think he's brilliant (check out the scene in Sideways when he's reading on the toilet and try to tell me that's not Oscar worthy stuff), so it helps that he imbues his character with enough gray area so you never quite know where he's coming from. Always a good choice to cast him. Jessica Biel is actually decent in this, as she plays Sophie. The character is a little weak, though, but she steps up to the challenge. And easy on the eyes to boot. And as the prince Leopold, all I can say is it's nice to Rufus Sewell in movies. Even if they aren't Dark City 2: Darker City.
Neil Burger's film portrays a place I can't recall ever having seen on film before. Possibly, but I can't fixate on anything concrete. AS a result of this, I enjoyed the film quite a bit more. It's fun to see where Vienna stands at the turn of the century, and it's fun to see this world he's created. It's also a world where people, while still a bit skeptical, are a lot more inclined to believe what they see for what it is. There are several layers at work, especially with a title like the Illusionist. And the beautiful cinematography from Dick Pope just adds to the splendor. I can;t stress enough how much I enjoyed this aspect of the film.
It should also be noted that Philip Glass provides a Philip Glass score. I happen to like him, so this is a good thing, but some may take that as a warning.
Now, my main problem is that I quite enjoyed the film as a whole until the last five to ten minutes or so. And my other problem is it's not really fair of me to tell you why, even in vague terms. Suffice it to say that the ending has a very strong resemblance to the conclusion of another, similarly themed film. Which wouldn't be quite so bad if it wasn't an almost shot for shot rip off. That really irritated me, and unfortunately that stayed with me, and skewed my opinion of the film a little bit. Or a lot. Enough to cause commotion.
But this is a problem of my own. I'm sure that many people will find no problem at all with it. And that's fine. But you don't write here, I do, so...
I recommend The Illusionist because it succeeds at presenting a world I have never seen. For that alone, it's worth it. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually. The performances are top notch and there's a great air of whimsy and mystery to the whole project, which is a nice change from most heavy handed drama normally reserved for this time period. Now we just have to see if The Prestige can one up the Illusionist's trick.