'Illusionist,' Missing the Magic

An illusionist (Edward Norton) falls in love with a woman (Jessica Biel) well above his social standing in this ultimately disappointing flick.
An illusionist (Edward Norton) falls in love with a woman (Jessica Biel) well above his social standing in this ultimately disappointing flick. (Photos By Glen Wilson Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

"The Illusionist" is as tasteful and pedigreed as a movie comes, starring two of this generation's most accomplished actors. Set in fin-de-siècle Austria, it glows with visual opulence and intellectual high-mindedness; with its themes of art, truth, history and romance, this is that rarity in the dog days of summer, a movie made for grown-ups.

Which makes "The Illusionist" that much more disappointing. Even the pleasures of watching Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti play off one another as two men involved in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse can't overcome a fatal sense of inertness. Rather than taking viewers on a twisty, provocative journey through a mazelike meditation on appearance and reality, "The Illusionist" finally just sits there, looking like a very well-produced pilot for PBS's "Mystery!" series. It's a sophisticated snooze.

Still, it all begins promisingly. The film opens quietly, on the image of Norton alone on a stage being watched by a silent audience. He plays a man named Eisenheim, an illusionist -- please, don't call him anything as banal as a magician -- who has become the toast of aristocratic Vienna. Sitting on his bare-bones chair, sweating as he tries to conjure the spirit of yet one more departed soul, Eisenheim is being watched by a Vienna policeman, Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), who, when a smoky image finally appears, promptly arrests the showman. "The Illusionist" then backtracks to Eisenheim's beginnings as a poor boy, his tutelage under an itinerant mystic, his friendship with a spirited young princess and the downfall of their budding romance.

Years later, Eisenheim encounters Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel) again, incurring the suspicion of her betrothed, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). As the intrigue builds, "The Illusionist" becomes not only a love story infused with the captivating romance of magic realism, but also a subtle, eerie augury of the cataclysm that lies ahead for Austria. Eisenheim, as befits Norton's solemn characterization, uses his sleights of hand not simply to divert his audiences, but to comment on such weighty matters as time, the soul and the nature of power itself.

Writer-director Neil Burger, who has adapted "The Illusionist" from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, has done a fine job of capturing the elegance and forward-looking modernity of late 19th-century Vienna, which here is presented in burnished hues and art nouveau flourishes, as well as with some clever references to the origins of cinema itself. And he has correctly decided to make "The Illusionist" a showcase for its two lead actors, who deliver sober, intelligent and ultimately wily performances.

If Leopold and Sophie don't come as vividly to life, that may be because they did not exist in the original story; both were invented by Burger, who also expanded the role of Uhl in order to make the story more cinematic. (Sewell does his best with a character reduced to stereotypical gestures and outbursts; Biel, whose ripe beauty recalls the young Faye Dunaway, doesn't do much more than look ripely beautiful.)

But cinematic it's not; as beautiful as "The Illusionist" is to look at, with its beguiling images of the butterflies and orange trees Eisenheim brings forth, it comes across as an elaborate series of stunts rather than casting a spell of its own. The film's final few moments, which reveal delectable twists and turns, feel unearned, as if the audience has been cheated of being let in on the scheme. (A colleague wryly referred to the film's climax as "the Scooby-Doo moment.")

One wonders what David Mamet, with his superb control of structure and tone, could have done with "The Illusionist's" feints and tells. Things aren't enlivened by Philip Glass's musical score, whose signature ostinato works more as a soporific than aural mood-setter. "The Illusionist" resembles one of Eisenheim's own routines, a story that tantalizes viewers with the promise of an engrossing tale, leads them on and then -- poof -- disappears.

The Illusionist (109 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for some sexual scenes and violence.)

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