Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Prestige

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

There are three steps to a magic trick: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. It's that third step that's most important because it's the reveal. It's the point where the audience's jaws are supposed to drop in amazement and suprise because they've been had.

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige goes to incredible lengths to make sure that we have been, but by the end I was instead left with the feeling I had witnessed one of the most ludicrous twist endings in years. Even worse, it took a lot of work to get there and was needlessly complicated. You get the feeling the movie almost has some kind of superiority complex and burning desire to prove it's more important and clever than it really is. I'm making it sound like this is a bad film which it's not at all, but I went in expecting a lot more. Maybe I'm guilty of inflated expectations. It's well made, incredibly acted and actually has more dramatic gravitas as a story than the other magician themed period piece of 2006, The Illusionist. It's a really good film that just ends up biting off a little more than it can chew.

The Prestige tells the story of two competing magicians and fierce rivals, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). When the film opens we see Alfred convicted of Rupert's murder and sentenced to be hanged. The film then flashes back to show the origins of their relationship when both worked as magician's assistants and an error on Alfred's part caused the death of Rupert's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) in a water tank trick. This leads to a bitter feud between the former friends as they spend nearly the entire length of the film trying to outdo one another by sabotaging and stealing each others tricks, writing false messages, physically harming one another and just generally ruining each other's personal and professional lives.

It's a story of what happens when obsession (mainly on Rupert's part) spirals out of control and insecurity masks all reasonable judgment. It's exciting and fun as your allegiance switches between both men at various points during the story. Rupert is a brilliant showman, but a terrible magician. Alfred is a brilliant magician, but a terrible showman. When Rupert gets wind of a new trick called "The Transported Man" in Alfred's act he's determined to find out how he does it. The secret to "The Transported Man" is really the secret to the entire movie.

At his disposal is Cutter (Michael Caine), one of the greatest trick engineers of the era. He also has his own assistant and lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) go undercover to work for Alfred and steal his secrets. How he has her approach Alfred about it and has her gain his trust is interesting and another one of the movie's many clever sleight of hand tricks. Things get complicated when Olivia falls for Alfred and her allegiance switches. Or does it? Nothing is ever what it seems in this film. There's also an interesting marriage of magic and science in the story with Rupert obsessing over a machine built by scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie in some inspired stunt casting) that he wants to incorporate into his act.

At times this is a very confusing motion picture with multiple timelines, various twists and unclear character motivations. It's also overlong, or at least feels overlong as it hurls toward the finale. In some ways it's more complicated than Nolan's own Memento. That film was told out of order, but it was just told backwards and didn't skip around. It was straightforward in it's complicatedness. This one seems to jump back and forth simply to hide information and make it look like there's more going on than meets the eye. There is, but not nearly as much as you think.

What makes this worth sticking around for is the battle of one upmanship that erupts between the two magicians and how the two lead performances from Bale and Jackman bring it to life. They're so fun to watch and look like they're having such a blast it makes you feel guilty to criticize anything about the film. The movie is basically a showcase for the two actors, particularly Bale, who's just one role away from an Academy Award at this point in his career. I think a lot of people will be surprised by Jackman's nuanced work here as well. Caine provides great support as expected, while Scarlett Johansson continues her streak of giving a merely adequate performance in a role with no depth. That she's managed to convince the world she's one of our most talented actresses is a bigger magic trick than anything you'll see in this film.

We are given some interesting behind the scenes glimpses into magic that wasn't present in The Illusionist, which was really just a well told love story with some supernatural elements. The ending to that film could have been easily telegraphed but at least it played fair. I'm not to sure this one does. For those of you who think the "twist ending" in this film is brilliant, I'd like to pose a question: How many screenwriters could just simply tack this ending on at any movie's conclusion to justify everything the main character does? It takes only one stroke of the pen. Have no worries if you didn't quite get it since one of the characters will explain it to you (and another character) in intricate detail upon it's silly reveal.

Oddly, everyone seems to be raving about this picture like it's the greatest mystery/suspense thriller they've ever seen (it's even recently cracked the imdb top 250). Nolan's one of our best directors but the screenplay could have backed him up a little more here. If you go into The Prestige expecting a great time you definitely won't walk away disappointed. If you expect a little more, you may find the film plays one trick too many.

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