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Untimely Debates: Is ‘Now You See Me’ a Good Movie?

Two Ringer staffers argue the merits of the 2013 heist movie about magicians that defies belief

Summit Entertainment/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

What follows is a conversation between me and Rodger Sherman, also a staff writer at The Ringer. It’s about 2013’s Now You See Me, a movie concerning magicians who steal things from places. I had assumed that Rodger, given the things I know about him, enjoyed and appreciated the silly fun of Now You See Me. That, however, turned out to extremely not be the case. He fucking hates it. So that’s what we talked about. Because I thought it was interesting that he carried such strong and specific feelings toward it in his chest.—Shea Serrano

Rodger Sherman: Listen, Shea, I’m mad at you, and you have exactly As Long As It Takes to Write This Article minutes to get me to stop being mad at you. You seem like a nice guy, and we like a lot of the same things—basketball; dogs; running a mile and a half and walking a half mile and saying we ran two miles—but recently we found something we disagree on. You like the movie Now You See Me, the heist movie in which a group of magicians use their skills of deception and manipulation to steal millions of dollars, outsmart the FBI, and teach the world the true meaning of magic. You said it was “fun.” I hated Now You See Me. I have never been as angry at a movie as I was when the credits started to roll, and I wasn’t just angry at the filmmakers. I was angry at myself, for buying into the suavely executed setup of the movie and deciding to stick around for the last 90 minutes, which is complete bonkers nonsense that falls apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Some heist movies explain what happens at the end. Now You See Me is just like, “Oh, that was magic I guess?” and hopes we accept it.

Our difference in opinions on the movie isn’t why I’m now mad at you. People are allowed to disagree on things. I’m mad at you because after that conversation we decided to make it into a post, and I had to rewatch Now You See Me so I could argue my points better. And guess what: I hated it exactly as much as I did the first time. I felt robbed of my time on my first run-through of the movie, and then I watched it again. And this time, it’s your fault.

Shea Serrano: I was surprised to learn that you didn’t like Now You See Me back when you saw it the first time and am surprised again right now to learn that you still don’t like Now You See Me. It’s, of course, not a top-level movie, sure. But it seems strange to pretend that it’s not at least a little bit interesting to watch Jesse Eisenberg (nominated for an Oscar), Woody Harrelson (nominated for three Oscars), Dave Franco (smokin’ hot), Isla Fisher (nominated for 13 different non-Oscar awards), Michael Caine (nominated for six Oscars), Morgan Freeman (nominated for five Oscars), Mélanie Laurent (a brilliant actress), and Mark Ruffalo (nominated for three Oscars, and also he’s the Incredible Hulk) take magic very seriously for 115 minutes. What don’t you like about it? Let’s go piece by piece through it. Let me comfort you. Let me answer your questions. Let me let you believe. Not only in magic, but also in yourself.

Sherman: So, the main thing I don’t like about Now You See Me is that after, like, 30 minutes, basically nothing makes sense. I’m fine with movies where nothing makes any sense. Except this one begins with a slick opening sequence explaining that magic only works because we let ourselves be deceived, and if we look closely there’s an explanation. And then nothing makes sense.

Some of the stuff plainly doesn’t make sense. One of the big heists in the movie is based around the movie’s protagonists, the Four Horsemen, putting an enormous mirror in a room and hiding a safe behind it, the same way magicians make rabbits disappear in boxes. It is not explained why, when a group of cops led by Common sprint into the room, they don’t see their own reflections. (Is Common a vampire?)

Serrano: Let me jump in real quick here. Because this one is easy. Common and the other officers don’t actually enter the room. They stop near the edge of it. And since the mirror is angled downward, you have to get really close to it before you’d see anything in it (they show how close you’d have to get to it later). It’s the same reason people sitting in the audience when a magician does the bunny trick don’t see their own reflection as they watch.

Sherman: Got it. The entire heist was based on Common seeing the mirror and being fooled and deciding not to get closer. Great plan.

Serrano: I mean, that’s basically all of magic.

Sherman: Some other stuff makes less sense. For example: The Horsemen steal $140 million from Michael Caine, who in this movie is a stingy insurance magnate who, for unexplained reasons, decides to sponsor the nationwide tour of a bunch of unknown street magicians. In between shows, the Horsemen trick Caine into revealing his uncle’s name and the name of his first pet—and then take $140 million out of his bank account, distributing it to Hurricane Katrina victims who didn’t get payouts from Caine’s insurance company.

Am I to understand that billionaires have the same protection on their bank accounts as I do when I lose my debit card? They don’t have to have their retinas scanned, or swipe their fingerprints, or even, like, call up their bank or anything? There’s no two-factor authentication here? Just anybody who knows a billionaire’s mother’s maiden name and first pet can take literally all of their money with no repercussions? FYI, if you can’t answer this question, I’m gonna start Googling various billionaires’ moms’ names.

Serrano: Let me do the first thing first. Michael Caine’s character, billionaire Arthur Tressler, has invested in the success of the Four Horsemen because he knows what I’m going to tell you right now: Magic is big business. David Copperfield, for example, has an estimated net worth of upward of $800 million. Penn and Teller, a magician/illusionist duo, have an estimated net worth of $300 million. You look at the Four Horsemen and see Jesse Eisenberg using magic tricks to impress women into sleeping with him who otherwise might not have slept with him. Arthur Tressler looks at the Four Horsemen and sees the possibility of making hundreds of millions of dollars for doing little more than sponsoring them to do some shows and letting them ride around in his private jet.

As for the second thing: I have to assume that a billionaire as arrogant with his wealth and his security as Arthur Tressler might also have some odd money habits, as well. He probably thought it was funny to keep, like, $200 million or whatever in the same kind of checking account that you or I have. His financial adviser probably said to him something like, “Hey, Mr. Tressler. I really think there’s better ways to hold this $200 million you have in your Chase Bank checking account.” To which he probably replied with something like, “Oh, really? Please, Mr. Financial Adviser, please give me, a billionaire, tips on how to hold my money.” To which the financial adviser probably replied, “If you don’t need a financial adviser, then why do you have a financial adviser?” To which Arthur, deciding to end the conversation in that way that only Michael Caine can, probably replied, “I’m beginning to ask myself that same question.”

Sherman: OK, that’s actually good screenwriting and should be in the movie. But the lack of effort from Common and Michael Caine doesn’t explain the biggest plot hole in the movie. Err, holes.

There are two big twists at the end. One involves Dave Franco, the hottest of the magicians. Franco’s character specializes in whipping cards at people’s faces, picking locks, and pickpocketing, and wait, now that I think about it, he’s actually just a thief and not a magician. (It’s never quite clear whether the people in this movie are good at magic or good at doing crimes.) Anyway, he dies in a car chase, and later, it’s revealed that the whole gang faked his death. This is a big surprise because after he “dies,” we see the other three Horsemen alone in their hideaway getting really upset and crying, even though they supposedly planned his death and nobody is watching them.

And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, the exasperated FBI agent assigned to catch the Horsemen … who is eventually revealed as the guy who planned the whole thing. See, his dad was a magician, and died in a magic accident, and he orchestrated the plot to get revenge on the people who wronged his dad. (It’s unclear whether the FBI stopped doing background checks, or whether they were just like, “Yeah, let the guy whose magician dad died in a magic accident take the big magic case. That’ll work.”) Again, even when nobody is watching, Ruffalo seems really determined to catch the Horsemen, and nearly screws up all their plans (his plans) by chasing them so aggressively and coordinating the FBI’s chase. He even demands that Mélanie Laurent shoot at Jesse Eisenberg, which really would’ve screwed up their plan (his plan).

When there’s a twist in a great movie, we can go back and see all the clues that something was off. In Now You See Me there are no clues. The twist catches us off guard because all the characters’ actions before the twist make the twist seemingly impossible. Why does everybody in the movie keep acting surprised by stuff they supposedly planned?

Serrano: OK, first, let me just throw in this quote from Eisenberg’s character real quick, because it feels especially poignant and applicable right now: “Let me warn you. I want you to follow. Because no matter what you think you might know, we will always be one step, three steps, seven steps ahead of you and just when you think you’re catching up, that’s when we’ll be right behind you. At no time will you be anywhere other than exactly where I want you to be. So come close. Get all over me. Because the closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.”

To your concerns, though:

First, to your point about the Horsemen being in the hideaway upset about Franco’s supposed death—I think you’re misremembering that scene. Nobody’s crying. Nobody says anything. The only thing that happens is Eisenberg gives Woody Harrelson a look after the TV person says that Franco is dead. When you watch the movie the first time, sure, maybe you can assign some sort of sadness to their posture or whatever. But on the rewatch, it’s pretty clear that Eisenberg is giving Harrelson a “lol these dumb bitches” look. This also clears up your thing about there not being any clues that something was afoot. There are SO MANY clues that something is afoot. And the biggest of them all is directly related to your second point:

Mark Ruffalo is so over-the-top serious in all of his actions and mannerisms in the movie that, upon rewatch, it’s like, “Oh. Duh. Of course this guy was the master magician and orchestrating everything.” His oafishness becomes so, So, SO obvious after you know that he’s the one pushing everything in the direction that it needs to go. He talks to the magicians the way that parents talk to their kids when they’re trying to make the kids feel like they’re outsmarting the parents, and he fights with the magicians the way that parents wrestle with their kids when they want the kids to win. It’s why putting him opposite of Jesse Eisenberg, who radiates “I’m Smarter Than Everyone Else” energy more purposely than any other working actor today, was such a smart move.

Sherman: OK, you’ve got answers for all the plot holes. But do you have answers for the things that just don’t make sense because, like, I don’t understand why the characters would act that way?

Ruffalo is joined on his quest to pursue the Horsemen by Mélanie Laurent, who almost immediately proves herself to be smarter and harder-working and more invested than Ruffalo. But Ruffalo is consistently skeptical and rude to her, criticizing her talents, motives, and decision-making. On multiple occasions, Ruffalo tears into Laurent, especially in group settings when their superiors are present. It’s also worth noting that Laurent is basically the most beautiful person alive, while Ruffalo is probably 14th on the list of Hottest Guys in Marvel Movies, behind all the Chrises, the guy who plays Bucky Barnes, and many more. Considering she had no idea that Ruffalo was in on the heist, a real-life hard-working cop who was perpetually demeaned and professionally embarrassed by her less attractive and less competent coworker would probably hate that guy! Of course, she falls in love with him. What the hell?

Serrano: Well, first of all, he treats her that way for the exact reasons that you mentioned: She is smarter and (ostensibly) harder-working than everyone else on the case. As soon as she showed up, he knew that she was the only real threat to his master plan being unraveled. He had to neutralize her. He had to try to make her so off balance that she could perform at, say, only 70 percent of her regular intellectual strength. Because if he didn’t, she’d have likely sniffed out what was going on before he had the chance to finally serve Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine their comeuppance.

And as to your “Ruffalo is probably 14th on the list of Hottest Guys in Marvel Movies” issue, that’s even simpler: This isn’t a Marvel movie. He’s not competing against Thor and Iron Man and Captain America and Falcon for her attention. He’s competing against Doug Stamper and Woody Boyd. Of course she’d pick Ruffalo over them. Additionally, take a look back at some of the other men who have pursued her in movies. Remember the guy in Inglourious Basterds who wanted to date her? He was literally a Nazi. She probably looked at Ruffalo and was like, “Well, his general existence is a little bit coarse, but at least he’s not a Nazi.”

Sherman: OK, you’ve explained the iffy magic tricks, the nonsensical explanations the movie provides, the gaping plot holes, and the weird character motivations. But there’s one thing you can’t explain: This movie was called Now You See Me. They made a sequel to the movie. It should have been called Now You Don’t. Instead, it is called Now You See Me 2. There are also rumors of a Now You See Me 3, which will apparently not be called Now You 3 Me.

It’s a disgrace. Would you have named your new book Basketball (And Other Things) 2: Movies? Once upon a time, a movie studio made a sequel to a movie called The Fast and the Furious, and a brave soul had the vision to name the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious. This was a great person, a person of vision and guts! And there isn’t even a plaque or a statue or a signpost in that person’s honor. We insult this person’s memory every time a film just slaps a number at the end of a movie. I think the poor sequel titling explains the whole shoddy experience of Now You See Me. Every explanation you’ve given me about the movie plot is invalidated by this critical failure.

Serrano: I … well, shit. I suppose you have me there. I will admit that I, too, wanted them to call the sequel Now You Don’t.