The Illusionist (2006)
Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel. Directed by Neil Burger.
Norton is a stage magician in Vienna, around 1900, specializing in communication with the dead. He is in love with Biel, who is about to be engaged to the arrogant, woman-slapping Prince Whomever, ambitious heir to the throne. Giamatti is a police detective who keeps an eye on Biel for the jealous Prince. Norton and Biel fall in love and worse, Norton publicly embarrasses the Prince in a stage trick. Of course the Prince will have his revenge. The lovers are separated, Norton is pursued, the detective detects, and finally the evil Prince gets his comeuppance and the ending is happy. The historical setting is interesting, although the excitement of fin de siècle Vienna is not represented. There are horses instead of cars and a sepia palette indicates “last century.” Biel speaks with a British accent, Giamatti with an American one, and Norton with some unidentifiable lilting affectation, which is weird but not unattractive. His lab notes are written in German however. Street signs are in German. But the crowds in the theater speak English. Why didn’t they just set the whole story in London? Norton gives a fabulous performance. He is a truly magical actor, but his magic tricks are just uninteresting CGI effects. He could pull a horse out of his ear and we wouldn't care. Giamatti gives a disappointing hammy performance. Biel has obviously attended the Scarlett Johanssen Academy of Lip Acting. The story depends on unlikely coincidences and against-character behavior, so while clever, it is not satisfying. Still, Norton’s performance and the clever story make an entertaining hour and a half.