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August 16-22, 2006

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'The Illusionist'

Photograph by Glen WIlson
Cherry Tomatoes at 10 Paces: Paul Giamatti (left) and Edward Norton make a worthy pair of adversaries in 'The Illusionist.'

Empty Hat

'The Illusionist' gets by on skilled performances

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

PEOPLE OFTEN use the word "magic" to describe the movies and their sometimes indescribable effect on our emotions. Or sometimes it's used in a more concrete sense to describe the latest F/X trickery. But rarely do movies take on the profession of magician. Among the few, Tony Curtis played Harry Houdini in a forgotten 1953 biopic, and old Merlin has made a few appearances in movies over the years (Excalibur, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, etc.). Orson Welles performed some coin tricks in F for Fake (1973), and Woody Allen plays a goofball stage magician in the recent Scoop. The reason is disappointingly simple. Magic tricks don't work on the big screen simply because they become movie tricks and not magic tricks.

In The Illusionist, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) takes the stage in turn-of-the-century Vienna and conjures up a miniature orange tree from an empty canister. Unfortunately, the tree merely looks like a bunch of CG pixels moving about, which is frankly pretty unimpressive compared to a dinosaur or an exploding spaceship. No, the real magic in the film occurs whenever Norton and Paul Giamatti appear onscreen. Playing ambiguous rivals, each mastering some kind of awkward Viennese accent, these two remarkable players have transformed their gawky, nerdy personas into respectable, upright men, ready to engage one another in a battle of trust and wits. (They're like pre-modern versions of De Niro and Pacino in Heat.)

Based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser, the plot begins with Eisenheim as a youth (Aaron Johnson), learning magic and meeting the girl of his dreams (Eleanor Tomlinson). Years later, the grown-up Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel) is all set to marry the evil, moustache-twisting, violent and drunk Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), when the grown-up Eisenheim comes back into town, now a master illusionist. His tricks take Vienna by storm, but his old ties to Sophie and his ability to fool Leopold earn him the crown prince's fury. What follows is a fairly routine combination of murder mystery, last-minute escapes, special effects and a "twist" ending. Giamatti plays the chief inspector, whose faith in his work is running thin. He is mainly in charge of protecting the crown prince, covering up his many lurid activities.

Writer/director Neil Burger does everything he ought to do, from hiring composer Philip Glass (and getting an unexpectedly subtle score) to commissioning Ricky Jay as a magic consultant and trusting cinematographer Dick Pope (Vera Drake) to conjure up some beautiful, golden-tinged images, sometimes framed in brown edging, like old photographs. But Burger also fails to take any chances, relying on a series of bland, time-tested cinematic devices, such as opening his film for no reason with a dramatic flash-forward to the story's three-quarter mark. Or the supposed "dramatic" editing as the chief inspector figures out the "twist." None of these obvious flourishes can match the magical power of just a few heartbeats in time as illusionist and inspector regard each other with curiosity, cunning and ultimately, respect.

Movie Times The Illusionist (PG-13; 110 min.), directed and written by Neil Burger, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, photographed by Dick Pope and starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell, opens Aug. 18.

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