by Josh Boris
The fun, frolicking festival of summer is coming to an end, and so are the big budget blockbusters that dominate the hearts and minds of American pop culture during those heated months. “Superman” has flown away, “Snakes on a Plane” is slithering off and as the weather cools down we are greeted with smaller, more introspective, perhaps “artsy” films as the Oscar race begins to gear up. Films such as “The Illusionist,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Hollywoodland” serve as an opening salvo for the months to come. However, while Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” shows some promise, its overly-clichéd plot and reliance on tried-and-true movie mechanics keep it from truly blossoming.
The film begins with the arrest of renowned illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) for inciting resistance against the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) through his illusionist act. What follows is the reconstruction of the events leading up to the arrest through Inspector Uhl’s report to the Crown Prince. As the plot unfolds we find that a young Eisenheim’s forbidden love with a duchess is rekindled when she appears as a volunteer in his magic show fifteen years later. However, her impending engagement to the prince creates obvious complications, and he must use all of his skills to win her back and eventually take down the corrupt prince.
When all of the frills are stripped away, the plot boils down to a pretty simple and recognizable one: Poor laborer falls in love with rich woman, but the standards of the time demand that their love cannot exist and she is promised to a rich man. Poor man must use his wits and talents to win back rich girl and show how evil rich man is. It’s like “Titanic” but without the sinking boat. While the “twists” in the movie are interesting, they’re not very surprising. Anyone who says “wow, I can’t believe the illusionist pulled off an incredible illusion” hasn’t really been paying attention to the movie.
However, it’s the frills that make the movie. The sets and cinematography are simple yet elegant, and form a beautiful and convincing picture of early 1900’s Vienna. The acting is also quite simple and understated and, with the exception of the often overdramatic prince (though he’s the kind of character you love to hate), the overacting you expect from both a period piece and a forbidden love story are thankfully absent. Edward Norton is low-key and his characterization is often punctuated by intense silences that lend to his mysterious quality. Giamatti once again performs well and is thankfully given a role in which he for once isn’t a pathetic loner. Even Jessica Biel, as the countess, performs well. While the main illusion is not that surprising, Burger is excellent with the little details, and is careful to keep us distanced enough so that we are never part of the illusion but are always curious onlookers.
Unfortunately I left the theater wanting more. While the plot relied around tricking the audience, in the end I would have liked to know more about what exactly was going on. The explanation of events seemed a little too empty. They also put too much into the clichéd love story where a greater examination of how a magician could take down royalty and the political ramifications may have been more interesting. Despite its short length, several of the plot points were overdrawn and it often felt quite slow. Throughout the film you can see bright spots peeking out, but I wouldn’t expect “The Illusionist” to appear on Oscar ballots come the next year. On a scale of “boo” to “whoo!” I would give it a “meh…”