In The Illusionist, Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a brilliant magician wowing crowds in 19th-century Vienna. For all of the complex tricks he manages to pull off, his most amazing one is convincing you that magic is boring.
It's too bad, because The Illusionist could have been an entertaining picture. All the pieces are there. To start, the cast is impressive. In addition to Norton, Paul Giamatti plays Inspector Uhl, a guy who likes to figure out how everything works, including stage magic. He's in the pocket of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a violent-tempered daddy's boy with bloody aspirations. Torn between the Prince and the magician is Countess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel, sounding a tad more British than Swiss). Sophie is the lynchpin of our plot: she knew Eisenheim when he was the young son of a cabinet maker, and when their opposing stations pulled them apart, he left on his pilgrimage to learn his trade. Fifteen years later, he's the hottest ticket in town, causing butterflies and orange trees to appear out of thin air. When Leopold comes to a performance, the Prince shoves Sophie onstage, presumably because he's not man enough to do it himself. Eisenheim is taken aback. It might be because he's aged far worse than his young love (she seems to have misplaced a decade somewhere), but it's more likely because his heart is once more taken with her.
From there, writer/director Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin), working off a short story by Steven Millhauser, has plenty to work with. There's political intrigue, a love triangle, a cagey detective, ghosts, and all other manner of juicy plot devices to make a clever tale of enchantment and deception. So how did he come up with something so bloodless?
The biggest fault of The Illusionist is its complete lack of a sense of wonder. In the digital age, a filmmaker can't make an old-school magician movie and substitute sleight-of-hand with special effects. There has to be some sense that Eisenheim has actually pulled something off. As a member of the movie audience, I should be feeling like a member of Eisenheim's theatre audience: wondering how he did it, and if it really was a trick or something more. Burger has the perfect foil in Giamatti's detective. From the get-go, he would love to know Eisenheim's secrets, but Burger keeps him--and us--at arm's length. We never get to glimpse behind the curtain, not even to see that there isn't anything there. Later, when Inspector Uhl begins to think Eisenheim may have supernatural powers, it comes out of left field. It's not even been established that the trickster aspires to such heights.
The Illusionist is a passionless picture. For a romance that has transcended time, where a woman is inspired to defy the future Emperor, the hearts of the participants don't appear to be beating very hard. Jessica Biel gives it a good try. Her cheeks get flushed and her breathing heavier, and it's to her credit that she shows more feeling than anyone in a company that definitely outclasses her. Norton spends most of the movie slouching and staring into space, while Sewell's Leopold has maybe two flashes of this famous temper we hear so much about. All the men speak in hushed tones, almost like they are afraid of being overheard. This is particularly surprising of the usually vociferous Giamatti. From the sound of his raspy voice, Inspector Uhl needs to put that pipe down and drink some tea with lemon and honey. You can see Giamatti struggling for a better performance, to relay the detective's analytical thought processes to the camera, but he never quite gets there. By the time he gets his Keyser Soze ending, it's simply not believable.
Given the spate of magician films coming in the next few months, The Illusionist had the advantage of being top of the bill. Unfortunately for those involved, they've wasted the opportunity, and instead of dusting off their positive (albeit dorky) magician clichés, critics are going to be rushing to be the first to note how quickly The Illusionist makes audiences disappear. (Was it me? Did I win?)
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.