Critics have raved about The Illusionist, and the film does have its merits, but I found it stilted and precious. Produced by the same team that brought you Sideways and Crash, The Illusionist was directed by Neil Barger, who has only made one other film, a low-budget mock documentary about the shooting of JFK. With this new movie, Barger seems very concerned about retaining the right period feel as he depicts the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, so when the film flashes back to the magician Eisenheim’s youth, Barger saturates every image in sepia so that even the edges of the screen look darkened as if we were looking at an old photo album.
When working class Eisenheim was young, he wanted to become a magician. One day, while balancing an egg on a stick, he befriends a rich, blond girl named Sophie. Since she was born across the Viennese tracks, so to speak, her parents dislike them dating, so one night in a Romeo and Juliet moment of stolen bliss together in a shed, she says “Make me disappear” before the family goons drag her away. Frustrated by his inability to make her vanish, Eisenheim wanders off to far away countries to learn some heavy-duty magic.
He returns to Vienna as Ed Norton, puts on a hot new illusionist show that involves tricks like making an orange tree grow quickly on stage, and suddenly finds his lost beloved transformed into the busty Jessica Biel, and (blast it!) affianced to the dastardly Crown Prince Leopold played with aristocratic snideness by Rufus Sewell. What will Eisenheim do now? Prince Leopold invites Eisenheim over to show off his tricks to his court, and Eisenheim cannot help pinning Leopold’s sword to the floor in the same vein as the King Arthur myth. No one can lift the sword, and Eisenberg slightly emasculates Leopold by depriving him of the use of his own sword just long enough for Leopold to tell his trusted chief of police Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to shut down Eisenheim’s show.
By now, you may think this film doesn’t sound bad, but there were several major problems that kept depriving me of the necessary suspension of belief. First, how is one supposed to respond to a magic trick done on film? Early on, we learn of Eisenheim first developing his love for magic by stumbling across an old magician on the side of the road under a tree. The old man takes a rose and transforms it into a flute. Then he causes the flute to float away before making himself, and then the tree, disappear. I guess I should have gotten caught up in the poetry of the gesture, and the magic tricks in the film do find ways to comment on the story in oblique ways, but they are still cheap and easy movie special effects. Later, on the stage, Ed Norton holds out his arm and grimaces as he makes a ghost appear, but where’s the magic in computer-generated imaging?
Second, Prince Leopold makes for a disappointingly doltish villain reminiscent of Billy Zane’s jealous fiancé in Titanic. Rufus Sewell snarls and flashes his eyes to his bolster his reputation as a woman-beater. At one point, he walks up on stage to interfere with Eisenheim’s act by asking to look up his sleeves, and everyone in the audience tells him to lay off. I suppose the viewer can indulge in his or her class hatred for the swinish corrupt rich men and their sexist treatment of damsels like Sophie. In scenes reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, Sophie sneaks off to canoodle with Eisenheim in carriages. Meanwhile, the excellent Paul Giamatti gets much screen-time as the surprisingly sympathetic Chief of Police.
Yes, the ending is clever, and yes, Ed Norton can act, but I prefer his previous roles such as the scallywag unrepentant gambler in Rounders. Here he seems content to play the relatively bland leading man, his magic serving as a metaphor for the ways he can fool us by disappearing into various roles. Wrapped in its period detail and its stuffy whimsicalities, The Illusionist works with leaden precision. Giamatti’s ironic rolling eyes are the only spontaneous things in the whole production.