June 22nd, 2008

THE ILLUSIONIST (2006) ***

 

Hollywood has a long tradition of what I like to call Dueling Movies.  One studio will announce they’re making one movie and another studio will quickly scramble to put out their version of the same story before the other one reaches theaters.  Remember in ’93-’94 when we got TWO Wyatt Earp movies?  How about the double shot of volcano flicks we got in ‘97? 

 

Well in ‘06, we got two rival movies about vengeance seeking magicians starring actors known for playing superheroes.  In The Prestige, it was Wolverine and Batman duking it out as turn of the century magicians.  In The Illusionist, it’s The Incredible Hulk’s turn to play a revenge minded magician during the early days of the 20th century. 

 

Hulk stars as this magician who as a kid loved an upper class girl and schemed to run away with her.  When her rich parents put the kibosh on that, Hulk ran away and became a hoity toity magician.  He grows up and gets some mad conjuring skills and returns to town looking for her, and since she’s grown up to become Jessica Biel, you can’t really blame him.  But Jess is promised to this ass hat of a Prince, so he’s got to knock her boots on the down-low.  The Prince finds out about their affair and quickly pulls an OJ Simpson on her.  After his beloved’s death, Hulk starts working some Crossing Over with John Edwards shit into his act where he conjures up Jessica’s spirit before the audience, riling up anti-Prince sentiment like it’s nobody’s business.

 

Comparisons to The Prestige are unavoidable, but The Illusionist holds it’s own pretty well.  Whereas the heart of The Prestige was a bitter rivalry, this flick is more romantic and fantasy oriented, though that’s not entirely a bad thing. 

 

The biggest flaw with the movie though is the thoroughly superfluous and convoluted “twist” ending that threatens to derail things during the third act.  Yeah I know the guy is an illusionist, but did he really need to “trick” us, the audience too?  And the more you think about the ending, the more it makes Hulk out to be a total scumbag.  It’s kind of weird because for 95% of the movie; you feel sorry for the guy, then it more or less turns out that he’s an amoral douchebag who’s willing to drive an innocent man to suicide just so he can slap his nut sac against the guy’s woman. 

 

The rich period detail enhances the film nicely (the flickering kinescope flashback was a cool touch) and although the movie sometimes flirted with Merchant Ivory territory, the excellent performances never failed to keep my attention.  Edward Norton is great as always and yet again proves himself to be the best actor of his generation.  I especially liked the sparring between him and the Prince, even though most of it was done through steely eyed glances and posturing.

 

If the filmmakers didn’t try to Keyser Soze us to death during the final reel, The Illusionist could’ve taken The Prestige for Best Magician Revenge Movie of 2006.  Oh well, Runner-Up isn’t so bad.