The Illusionist, a costume drama-mystery about magic, long-lost love, and imperial politics that takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna and stars Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, appears to offer an antidote to most typical summer fare with its careful craftsmanship and meaty performances. After closer inspection, however, the film actually emphasizes the gulf between the classical storytelling models inspiring it and the lackluster contemporary product it is.
Writer-director Neil Burger employs several beloved tricks of 19th-century English novelists -- broad characters, improbable coincidences, forbidden romances, hints of the supernatural, a few zingers about social class -- as he recounts the story of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Norton), a popular and gifted conjurer whose love for Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) draws the attention of power-hungry Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and doubtful Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). The look of the film is careful to evoke the time frame as well; the gold and copper tones in the cinematography and the rounded edges of the frame recall D.W. Griffith's great 1919 romance Broken Blossoms.
As Inspector Uhl, Giamatti gives a fine performance; he's smug and imperious to his inferiors yet resigned and small in the face of power. He's sympathetic as an audience surrogate and narrator, although he tries an indistinct Austro-Hungarian accent at times that leads to such Grand Teutonic line readings as "I vass ze son of a bootcha, Herr Eisenheim." Norton's Eisenheim is a canny, cagey pro who substitutes a gesture or a look for a word wherever possible. Rufus Sewell counters Norton's reserve with a vein-popping, moustache-curling throwback villain performance as Prince Leopold; Sewell stomps around and bellows like a lacrosse player juiced to the eyeballs with steroids before the big match. Sewell and Norton cross swords in the film's best sequence, when Leopold invites Eisenheim to the imperial palace for a private magic show and attempts to expose the magician as a fraud.
Like an amateur magician's stage patter, though, such entertaining distractions hide larger structural and imaginative shortcomings. The romantic connection between Norton and Biel (whose sensual gifts and intelligence are absent here) that should energize the film is tepid and threadbare, replacing emotional nuance and romance for two stock expository scenes and some gauzy sex. The inadequacy of such scenes shows how much imagination and sensitivity moviemakers have lost: Broken Blossoms, with nary a kiss (or spoken word) between the two leads, was much more efficient, effective, and enlightening in conveying passion and longing.
The central plot complication midway through the film is never credible, and Burger's stock musings on empire and power feel like unsuccessful attempts to misdirect the audience and cover up narrative holes that remain open until the very end, when an alleged resolution emerges. Such ambiguity is fine if it leads to wisdom about character or society, but the last act of The Illusionist is mediocre storytelling capped by a "twist" from the M. Night Shyamalan/Bryan Singer school.
It is fair to compare contemporary films with past models, especially when Burger draws from so much prior popular entertainment to inspire his own work. It is also fair and right to demand more of a summer film than a thin, overly clever, horse-drawn version of The Usual Suspects.
Opening Friday, September 1st
Paradiso, Cordova, Studio on the Square