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‘Illusionist’ not just smoke and mirrors

Making a trip to a local movie theater and being entertained honestly by a high quality full-length feature has become an ever-increasing rarity. It seems that with every passing year, the overall output of the most widely consumed visual art form on the planet becomes more and more watered down with remakes, sequels, adaptations and a wide variety of “Hollywoodian” clichés that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud.

Moviegoers who have a tendency to choke on handfuls of popcorn upon seeing grossly budgeted and over-blown spectacles of silver-screen sleaze may want to look into seeing The Illusionist for a small gasp of fresh air.

The heart of this well-filmed, quality drama is a love story between the self-made Eisenhiem the Illusionist (Edward Norton) and his childhood friend and eventual lover Sophie (Jessica Biel). Eisenheim is a magician with serious moves and tricks no one has seen before.

Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, the storyline also features the corrupt Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) – a serious mover and shaker who has plans to overthrow a kingdom and is slated to marry Sophie – and the almost-completely corrupt Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) who is hired to spy on the Prince’s eventual bride and shut down the mysterious magician.

It is likely you may not have heard of this latest cinematic output with Norton and the relatively unknown writer and director Neil Burger. Movies like The Illusionist rely on seemingly “old school” film techniques rarely used today, such as tasteful cinematography and engaging, talented acting performances. Methods like these no longer catch the eye of John Q. Moviegoer, prompting studios to give television spots and vigorous ad campaigns to films that are far less deserving.

This stylishly presented feature’s best qualities come from the performances of both the seasoned Norton, who appears to have returned to his once-common form of selecting roles with substance and depth, and the unnerving Giamatti, whose performance might not be as enthralling as his roles in American Splendor or Sideways but is absorbed much easier, without the regular synaptic twitch his characters usually convey. Also coming along for the ride is Biel -who normally receives attention not for her acting prowess, but for her jaw-dropping, gorgeous appearance. Her role as Sophie, the born-into-aristocracy childhood friend and love interest of Norton, is nothing to get overly excited about, but is fresh enough to make everyone forget the bad old days of Biel’s character Mary chucking up air balls while not having premarital, unprotected sex on the WB’s whipping post, 7th Heaven. Biel, though marginally talented, is much better suited as the soon-to-be princess -a role that is not really much of a stretch for any beautiful actress to play.

As an added bonus, Sewell’s performance as the corrupt prince acts as the I-dotting and T-crossing twist of lime the movie sorely needed. Complementing the three characters the audience is supposed to sympathize with, Sewell does a good job as a truly slimy and despicable twerp.

The film’s direction is oddly paced at some moments, namely a number of cuts with uneasy, shoddy transitions from scene to scene. Director Neil Burger has only made two films, and at some moments, it is gapingly clear.

The main shortcoming of the film is that it plays on the story of a magician and attempts to bring the theme of “illusion” from the character to the direction of the film, setting up a predictable twist ending. Even if you don’t know exactly how the twist will be achieved, you are already aware the twist is well on its way and the eventual outcome. This makes the film trip into a ditch when it could have glided in full gallop. Its attempt at being clever comes off as a misguided creative writing exercise.

A minor theme that could be within the film’s underbelly is a faint message of free speech and freedom of expression. Movies such as Quills and The People Vs. Larry Flynt set the standard this film fails to achieve – but at least the filmmakers deserve kudos for giving a half-assed effort.

Although it does have a minor flaw or two, The Illusionist is still a worthwhile film to see for those who require more out of a film than a massive explosion and car race between terminators and predators. For a story that has been told a thousand times, the movie has filmmakers and actors who do a relatively good job at making this story their own. The bright spots outweigh the dark in this one, with the major pluses being exceptional acting by the entire cast and pleasing cinematography. Especially for fans of Norton and Giamatti, this film is recommended.


Running time: 110 minsRated: PG-13