The Illusionist

illusionist_poster“Perhaps there is truth in this illusion.”

The Scoop: 2006 PG-13, directed by Neil Burger and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Bie

Tagline: Nothing is what it seems

Summary Capsule: Ed Norton grows a neato beard and uses it to seduce the finacee of the Crown Prince of Austria. Oh, and there’s something about making ghosts appear in there, too.

PoolMan’s Rating: Do Paul Giamatti’s teeth move completely independently of his mouth, or what?

PoolMan’s Review: In this modern, crazy, hectic world we live in, we don’t want anything that’s not battery powered, self diagnosing, invertable, reusable, and made of 100% entirely recycled Justin beard hair. We like our products feature packed, cool, and above all else, tricky.

It was probably in this spirit that M Night PlayStation began the new wave of movies with twist or trick endings. Not content to simply let a movie come to a logical and (at least possibly) predictable end, our dear Sixth Sense auteur began a trend of movies where the climax would leap out from behind a bush and yell BOO at us rather than make any kind of sense. In essence, movies have taken a turn towards becoming guessing games, where we try desperately to guess how it’s all going to end based on the info we’ve got, only to have some non sequitur piece of action withheld from us until the very final frame. Mysteries are only fun to unravel if you have all the means to do so.

The Illusionist takes a shot at having some fun with this trend while not completely leaving the audience in the dark or without legitimate clues. Set in Austria in the late 19th century, a man named Eisenheim the Illusionist discovers his childhood sweetheart (now a noblewoman) is engaged to marry the brutal and unloving crown prince, heir to the throne, as a political maneuver. Eisenheim uses his amazing stage presence and flair for magic to embarrass the prince, steal his love out from under his nose, and finally show him for the tyrant he is. The prince sets Chief Inspector Uhl to the task of undoing Eisenheim, a job the policeman doesn’t relish, seeing as he is unabashedly admiring of the magician and ashamed of his patron, yet loyal to his country.

What I really like about The Illusionist is that if you’re paying attention, it leaves all its clues in the open. All of them. It is actually possible to guess how things will end with the info we’re presented. There’s no “surprise, it’s actually the 21st century!” at the end of this one, only a possible (if implausible) ending that’s as much an illusion as any of the stage shows we witness throughout the movie.

I was also really surprised by how much I enjoyed the performances. Jessica Biel manages to survive without ever appearing in a pair of tight jeans and does a fine job as Sophie, and Rufus Sewell spits and eye-bulges his way through being a complete jackass as the prince. Ed Norton is well suited to his quiet role as Eisenheim, and manages to convey a lot about the character through his presentation and less through his dialogue. What really nailed it for me was Paul Giamatti as Uhl. Giamatti did a terrific job with what could have been a thankless role and comes extremely close to making the movie about his character instead of the titular magician. It could even be argued that Uhl IS the main character, and that speaks volumes about Giamatti’s performance. The look on his face at the end as he realizes what’s happened is utterly real, and sells the illusions of the previous two hours beautifully.

It may not be a movie to watch every week with friends, but it’s a solid film to see at least once. The recap at the end handholds the audience to the point of possibly negating a second viewing, but it’s still a very fun flick. Put on your thinking cap and see if you can figure it out.

"Now, you just put this little red riding hood on, and I'll come in dressed as the big bad wolf. Nah, baby, this won't get weird!"

“Now, you just put this little red riding hood on, and I’ll come in dressed as the big bad wolf. Nah, baby, this won’t get weird!”

Intermission! [some sources: IMDb]

  • Edward Norton did many of his own magic tricks, with the coaching of James Freedman. He worked with Edward Norton preparing him for his stage performances and acted as a hand double in numerous situations.
  • In the scene where Uhl reports to the prince in the woods, the word “fornicating” doesn’t quite match with the prince’s lips…
  • Crib notes from Shakespeare much?
  • Nice brooch!
  • The Chinese stage hands seem utterly convincing that they don’t know how any of the tricks are done. So… why are they there?
  • Spoilers!
        At the end of the movie, we are finally presented with the information that Eisenheim’s illusions really are just cleverly executed practical special effects. He is not a real magician, his tricks are based in science.
        However, although we can guess, it’s never actually stated outright how Eisenheim’s “Sword in the Stone” trick is achieved. There is an audio hint suggesting an electromagnet is used. Electromagnets were first used in the 1820’s, so this is feasible. It becomes a question of whether Eisenheim guessed Leopold would be so rude to him during a show, and how he activates/deactivates the magnet. (or installs it, for that matter… this was back at Leopold’s castle, remember…)
      Also, it’s never made clear how the “ghosts” are summoned. Is the method the police come up with just a cruder version of how it was actually done? It’s not really stated.

    [end spoilers]

Groovy Quotes

Eisenheim: Everything you have seen here has been an illusion.

Chief Inspector Uhl: Promise me you won’t do it again.
Eisenheim: I promise you you’ll enjoy this next show.

Young Sophie: Make us disappear!

Chief Inspector Uhl: You don’t know that.
Eisenheim: No. But you do.

Crown Prince Leopold: He has tricked you, it is all an illusion!
Chief Inspector Uhl: Perhaps there is truth in this illusion.

Crown Prince Leopold: [dressed as a commoner] How do I look?
Chief Inspector Uhl: Ordinary, sir. Very ordinary.

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