Written & Directed by: Neil Burger
A good magic trick ought to astound spectators into wondering, in vain, “how’d they do that?” In The Illusionist, Eduard (Edward Norton), stage name Eisenheim – read Eisenstein – performs some pretty amazing sleights of hand, but it’s pretty obvious to the film audience how he’s done them: CGI, of course. Magicians are great diegetic stand-ins for filmmakers as both are, see the title, creators of illusions and manipulators of the human eye, but Burger only makes it evident that this might be his point near the end of his otherwise convoluted and thematically muddy film.
Eisenheim is in love with Sophie, some Duchess or other played competently by the dumb-faced Jessica Biel. Sophie loves him too except she’s kinda, like, you know, pre-engaged to this Prince dude. Anyway, they’re from different classes, so in turn-of-the-century Vienna it’d never work. Not since Aladdin has the screen seen such a penetrating examination of the ossified class systems of the Old World; don’t you dare close your eyes.
Just kidding – watch most of the movie blindfolded and you won’t miss much. Burger is too distracted by too many ideas, letting his mind wander from political intrigue to religious allegory to the ontology of the photographic image, but never thinking about any of them long enough to make them interesting. Do filmmakers, qua magicians, have a moral obligation to enlighten rather than distract? Can the dead live forever, on film? The film barely asks these questions, and many others, let alone ever try to answer them.
With the irritating aesthetic sense of Masterpiece Theater, Burger is only interested in telling his rather dull story so that he can get to his big twist finale. Up to that point, however, he seems intent on using everything in his bag of tricks to suck you out of the narrative, most of all making very familiar actors use awful accents. (Paul Giamatti, whom I expected to stick out of a period piece as laughably as Dustin Hoffman in the trailer for Perfume, is surprisingly the most convincing. Norton’s performance is as impressive as Eisenheim’s tricks, especially in scenes where he keeps his mouth shut, while Rufus Sewell lets us know, tiresomely, that his character, the aforementioned Prince, is angry by shouting all the time.) The twist itself is strange and confusing; I understand what happened, but still not how.
Neither, I suspect, does Burger, nor does he care. When Giamatti starts narrating in voice-over in the film’s final act you may remember that the film began with a framing device, but more likely you’ll think Burger has simply given up. You may as well, too.