You don't have to have spent more than five minutes in the presence of a professional magician to recognize that Edward Norton has their entire act down. The piercing stare; the aura of benign yet vaguely troubling composure; the perpetual half-grin that seems to admit to some fiercely guarded trade secret but actually allows nothing â?¦ all of it Norton conjures with skill and verisimilitude in The Illusionist, a fun period piece that almost single-handedly rescues magic from its decades-long slide into the uncool.
Just when you thought your impression of the craft had been forever tainted by the image of Arrested Development's Gob Bluth fatuously declaring, 'It's not a trick, Michael â?¦ it's an illusion,â?� along comes this affectionate, sepia-toned snapshot to remind us all why a good magician is so deserving of awe and so capable of inspiring resentment: From his first moment on stage to his last, he's the guy who knows something you don't.
It's what makes audiences in turn-of-the-century Vienna flock to see the great Eisenheim (Norton), a jaw-dropping performer some say must have gotten his powers from the Devil himself. The sneering Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), however, harbors no such superstition; he's one of those know-it-all killjoy types who delights in telling a room full of onlookers how he thinks a trick is done. He can never pierce the mysteries of Eisenheim's show, though, which this paranoid would-be despot takes as a threat to his ever-expanding authority. And when the two men discover they have a woman (Jessica Biel) in common, their rivalry enters the realm of the truly dangerous, with the prince dispatching a beleaguered chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) to shut down Eisenheim's act at all costs and the latter drawing deeper into his repertoire to end his persecutor's reign of terror.
There's a wonderful moment in that cat-and-mouse game when Eisenheim appears to have tapped into something genuinely supernatural, eschewing mere illusion to marshal forces from out of this world. Or has he? At that point, we realize how successful filmmaker Neil Burger (Interview With the Assassin) has been in equating us with Eisenheim's dumbstruck audiences. Neither of us knows just what this master magician can do ' or what type of movie Burger is actually making. It's an epiphany of dizzy disorientation at the end of a typically pat moviegoing summer.
Which is not to say the film is entirely unpredictable. Reasonably intelligent viewers will figure out the basic gist of Eisenheim's plans simply by remembering the cardinal rule of magic: What you think you saw is not what the movie (or the illusionist) actually showed you. The crucial distinction is that, in either case, you may know what's coming, but never how you're going to be taken there. And anyway, who wants to concentrate hard enough to spoil the surprise, when the cost is to end up in the philosophical company of that joyless boor, the prince?
This is the best kind of genre movie: one that doesn't demand to be taken as anything loftier, yet supports all kinds of hifalutin discussion afterward. The proudly pure-blooded prince lets slip some ethnic-cleanser tendencies (hints of every real-world genocide ever to invade the headlines), and the unbridled contempt he feels for the far cleverer Eisenheim embodies an artists-versus-bureaucrats clash that's as old as time. Burger comes down squarely on the side of magic, whether it might spill from an upturned top hat or the lens of a projector. He wants us all to remember that there's no better feeling than taking your seat and letting an expert make you feel stupid ' as long as you're smart enough to let him.