Friday, November 18, 2016

OVP: The Illusionist (2006)

Film: The Illusionist (2006)
Stars: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Director: Neil Burger
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

Were you to make a list of actors that I was forced to sit through one of their movies, you would be hard-pressed to find a group that would make me groan louder than Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel.  The first two, by-and-large, I've never actually enjoyed in a movie.  I can get that there might be some technical skill there, but it's so bloated and wasted in most movies they're in, and I'm usually trying to get past them in the few films that are actually well-done.  Biel, on the other hand, is an actress of such limited abilities that I'm not entirely sure what she does in cinema anymore, she so quickly fades into the back of a movie.  The three of them together, without any redeeming actor to help (sorry-Rufus Sewell doesn't count enough to make that argument), made me wonder how on earth I was going to survive The Illusionist.

(Spoilers Ahead) While I lived, it was more based on dogged determination than actual enjoyment, for this film, the poorer brother to The Prestige, is hardly worth anyone's time.  The film's focus, on a magician who performs daring feats of illusion that seem impossible to those around him, is bloated, tired, and predictable.  For a film that is completely reliant upon continually wanting to surprise you, I didn't miss a beat coming.  It was impossible, for example, to assume that the movie wouldn't end up with Biel and Norton running away together from the comically evil Prince Leopold (Sewell), and that their breakup wouldn't require them faking her death in some capacity.  I mean-everyone saw that coming five minutes in, right?

A film with a predictable plot can sometimes be saved by some other redeeming factor; after all, 90% of movies we see every day are going to be easy to spell out, but we end up liking them thanks to cool effects or fine acting, but none of these actors escaped my reputation with them.  Norton is more subdued than you'd imagine, but when the bombast is called for, he shouts like he's Richard Burton trying to steal a scene from John Gielgud (for the record, that's not a compliment).  Nowhere in the film is there any sense of who this man is, and while some could argue that aids in the mystery, so much time is spent on his backstory that this is a pretty specious line of reasoning.  Worse still are Biel, playing a role that might as well be called "noble girlfriend" for all she grows the character, and Giamatti, who is terrible as the inspector whose true intentions shift every single scene like he's in a Ryan Murphy show.  Honestly-Giamatti is not a good actor, no matter how much you may have liked Sideways-everything he's done since has been a travesty of half-hearted turns and angry enunciation.  In college I would group him alongside Hilary Swank and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the three actors that were Oscar-beloved but I couldn't see the appeal, but in hindsight that's not entirely fair.  Hoffman and Swank are uneven depending on the film, but occasionally find greatness. Giamatti is just playing the same tired cartoon over and over and over again.

The film received one nomination for the Oscars, which is why I ended up seeing it in the first place, but even that is questionable.  Dick Pope is a wonderful cinematographer, and there are moments that feel quite strong-some of the scenes that veer into a canary yellow are striking, even if they feel like they wash out the actors themselves.  However, the lighting in the climactic magic scenes leaves too much to be desired-it's too straight forward, too dark, and there are other scenes that feel entirely straight-forward.  Pope would, eight years later, create his magnum opus with Mr. Turner, a film that lives up to his strong artistry, but The Illusionist is merely occasionally striking with too many moments that feel blase.

Those are my thoughts on this film, one of the few 2006 nominees I had left to see.  What are your thoughts-do you remember this, or do you confuse it still with The Prestige?  Anyone want to defend it, or are we all in agreement this is pretty bad?  And will Paul Giamatti ever be an easy sell for me?  Share in the comments!

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