The Illusionist review by Mike Long

OK boys and girls, here's today's cinematic question: When is a surprise ending not a surprise ending? The answer? When the viewer doesn't find the ending surprising. Not unlike flying elephants, surprise endings are very easy to spot, in films such as The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. They occur when the story takes a sudden shift and everything that the audience thought beforehand make an abrupt change. The Illusionist has a surprise ending, but I didn't realize it until the movie told me so. This is just one of the problems with this oddly somber film.

The Illusionist opens with the story of a young boy named Edward who has a chance encounter with a magician. Following this, the boy becomes obsessed with magic until he is quite good. He meets a Duchess named Sophie, and despite the fact that they are fast friends, they are forbidden to see one another due to the differences in their social class. However, they do see each other on occasion. Until the day in when Edward leaves the village.

The story then shifts to turn-of-the-century Vienna. Edward, now going by the name Eisenheim (Edward Norton), is a well-known magician who is performing in a theater. His shows become the talk of the town, drawing the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who is curious as to how Eisenheim performs his illusions. Uhl reports directly to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who is also curious about the magician. Leopold attends one of Eisenheim's shows, and when the performer asks for a volunteer, the Prince urges one of the women with him to approach the stage. As she does, Eisenheim immediately recognizes her as Sophie (Jessica Biel), but he doesn't say anything at the time. However, they do meet later and they find that their youthful friendship has grown into love. The firm, but fair Uhl gets wind of this and advises Eisenheim to stay away from Sophie, not cause any sensations with his show, and generally keep a low profile. But, when a tragedy occurs, Eisenheim's act takes a very dark turn which fascinates the public and infuriates Leopold. What could be so important that the illusionist would put his career and life on the line?

In a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King named The Illusionist as one of the best films of the year and commented on how he didn't see the ending coming. Really? Stephen King? One of the greatest writers of the past 30 years and certainly one of the most imaginative people working today didn't see that ending coming? Did he happen to notice the title of the film? Seriously folks, I'm one of those people who really gets into the story while watching a movie, and thus, I'm often not looking out for twists and turns. (Unlike my wife, who can ruin any movie for you within a few minutes.) But, I clearly saw the ending coming here and it wasn't until the movie performed that familiar conceit of going back and showing the audience all of the pieces which went into the twist did I realize that a twist had occurred. I'm not claiming to be smarter than the average viewer, I'm just saying that the finale plays like the natural course of the story, and not something surprising.

Actually, I would have loved to have been surprised by the ending, for that would have most likely made The Illusionist an overall better viewing experience. The movie certainly has some high points. The acting is top notch, most notably Giamatti who has the challenge of playing a character who is essentially a nice person who has to do an often cruel job. Writer/director Neil Burger has chosen to give the overall style of the film a very period look, as the movie looks as if it were hand-cranked. The image flickers somewhat, the edges of the frame are often dark, and the overall color palette is sepia-toned. But Burger didn't do as good a job fleshing out the short story by Steven Millhauser. On the audio commentary, Burger speaks of adding characters such as Sophie and Leopold, and the 110 minute film still feels quite shallow at times. Once the film gets going, the core story is quite simple -- Eisenheim loves Sophie, Leopold is jealous of Eisenheim's hold over the people, and Uhl must balance his job and his personal feelings. And while these issues are quite clear, the movie is very cold. Perhaps Burger was trying to reflect the stoic culture of the period, but while we know the character's motivations, we never quite grasp their emotions -- especially Eisenheim, who becomes quite distant and inscrutable during the second half of the film (this may explain why the ending takes some by surprise).

The Illusionist is a challenging and ultimately disappointing film. The movie is very well-made, has a great cast (even Biel was pretty good), and an interesting story. But, the movie never really takes flight and lies quite flat for most of its running time. In fact, while writing this review, I had to struggle to remember details about the movie. For fans of the actors, or period pieces, the movie is worth checking out, but remember, don't believe everything that you see, and don't expect to see anything memorable.

The Illusionist is conjured on DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate editions, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Thanks to Burger's hand-cranked look, the image is slightly grainy and somewhat dark around the edges. The sepia-toned look of the film does give way to some nice reds and oranges. These oddities aside, there is little artifacting or edge-enhancement to be had here. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which brings us clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, but the film only has a few opportunities for surround sound (mostly crowd noise) and subwoofer effects. The score by Philip Glass sounds very good.

The Illusionist DVD contains a few extra features. Writer/director Neil Burger provides an AUDIO COMMENTARY for the film. This is a good talk, as Burger does a fine job of keeping his comments scene specific, and balances talking about the actors, the locations, the filmmaking style, and the story, specifically how it differs from the short story on which it is based. "The Making of The Illusionist" (7 minutes) is a brief featurette which contains comments from Norton, Biel, Sewell, and Giamatti, and only one behind-the-scenes shot. We hear more from Biel in "Jessica Biel on The Illusionist" (90 seconds). The final extras is the TRAILER for the film.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

blog comments powered by Disqus