Monday, August 14, 2006

Presto chango

Sleight-of-hand is back in style at the cinema. Going back on my word I found myself at Woody Allen's Scoop the other week, and found it an amusing trifle--what did the critics who trashed this find so special about much earlier wastes-of-effort like Mighty Aphrodite and Hollywood Ending? It's basically a comical counterpoint to Match Point, with Allen pulling the recently deceased Ian McShane out of his hat and mixing it up with journalist Scarlett Johansson (somewhat uncomfortably cast) and her aristocratic quarry, Hugh Jackman. Jackman seemed rather too old, and too tall, to be pursuing the exceedingly petite Johansson but the two are reteaming at Christmas for another abracadabra adventure, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

In the meantime, there is The Illusionist (Yari Film Group; opens Aug. 18). The hocus pocus here, which can be credited to the cinematographer, Dick Pope, and the production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil, is taking a modest budget and stretching it to create an excellent facsimile of turn-of-the-20th century Vienna in modern-day Prague, that most adaptable of cities (it stood in nicely for Newark, of all places, in the action-noir Running Scared). Fleshing out a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser, writer-director Neil Burger has himself taken a great leap forward, from a modest two-hander of a debut (Interview with the Assassin) to a luxurious, cast-of-dozens period piece. With a handsome, unusual look that replicates early experiments in color photography, The Illusionist is a pleasure to watch...but maybe not as much to think about.

Which is not to say that The Illusionist is a brainless film. It's just that all this finely wrought craft (including a typically insinuating Philip Glass score) teases us with the expectation that the film might be about something more than a puzzle, which its detective character, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), unravels with all but a hearty "A-Ha!" at the wrap-up stage. This is very much a dress-up movie, with Giamatti, Edward Norton, and Rufus Sewell, munching on middle European accents, elaborately costumed and coiffed. Norton, whose amazing performance in the criminally overlooked Down in the Valley went far beyond artifice, embraces the opportunity to conceal himself as Eisenheim, an "illusionist" who stuns onlookers with powers that extend all the way to spiritualism. Having none of it, Crown Prince Leopold (a harrumphing Sewell) puts the dogged inspector on Eisenheim's case, to unmask him as a fraud. What the prince does not anticipate is Eisenheim's bottomless love for his intended, Sophie (Jessica Biel), triggering a romantic rivalry with consequences for lives and afterlives.

Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel...something would seem to be askew in the talent vector of the film. Compared to her gifted fellows (Sewell is no slouch, either) Biel would seem to be rather ordinary, or worse, but for this one film at least movie magic has been worked. She is perfectly dressed and styled (by Ngila Dickson) as the Polish aristocrat she is playing, as if she had stepped out of a photograph, and the accent is as passable as the rest. The transformation of this valley girl Eliza Doolittle is nothing short of stunning and is the crowning touch of a romantic mystery that is all immaculately polished surfaces.

I had thought The Illusionist would have something stirring beneath its veneer--greater use made, perhaps, of Judaism, or the emergence of psychology, a little more metaphysics, a little less The Usual Suspects, a model for its own twisty alchemy. I guessed wrong, but in a summer that has been parched for more adult entertainment The Illusionist is a beautifully appointed oasis. At the very least it deserves better than its completely unimaginative tagline, "Nothing is what it seems." The movie is called The Illusionist. Like, no kidding. Lure us into the theater with something we don't know.

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