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Smoke & Mirrors

Rama Gottumukkala | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Renowned illusionist David Copperfield once opined, “The real secret of magic lies in the performance.” Director Neil Burger seems to have taken note of Copperfield’s wisdom when fashioning “The Illusionist,” an impressive foray into the mind and methods of a gifted conjurer at the turn of the 19th century.

Supported by stellar performances, the film works, even as it makes rapt audiences wonder – if only at the far corners of their minds – as to why it does.

At the center of this supernatural mystery stands Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a cabinetmaker’s son whose innocent childhood romance with duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) ends in heartbreak. Setting off to explore the Far East, Eisenheim returns 15 years later to his native Vienna as an esteemed illusionist, adored by the masses for his charm and mystical talent.

But a chance encounter with Sophie during one of Eisenheim’s stage performances reignites their passion, drawing the ire of Sophie’s recent fiancé, the powerful and conniving Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Hiring his longtime friend Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to discredit the magician, Leopold prepares to dispatch a rival he sees a minor nuisance, despite Eisenheim’s growing influence over the citizens of Vienna.

Based on a short story entitled “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, Burger’s cinematic adaptation succeeds on multiple levels, despite a number of plot twists that are anything but unordinary. Burger recognizes the importance of style in a film such as this, placing the onus of the picture’s emotionality on two of the finest actors of their respective generations – Norton and Giamatti. The two carry the film from start to finish, and Burger wisely chooses to shine the spotlight on their combative but respectful relationship.

Norton’s quiet, regal and slightly aloof performance allows Eisenheim to remain as much of an enigma as each of his illusions. He commands every scene he appears in, allowing for an all-too-rare opportunity to see the thespian embrace his talent as a leading man. The last few years have been lean for Norton, who has twice been nominated for an Academy Award. Lately, he’s been relegated to backseat roles in films like “Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Italian Job.” But here, he’s as magnetic and as watchable as he was in Spike Lee’s 2002 drama “25th Hour,” the last entry on Norton’s filmography worthy of mention.

Playing opposite Norton is the equally charismatic Giamatti. In the past, he’s been a quirky wino in “Sideways” and a quirky superintendent in “Lady in the Water.” There’s nothing quirky about his role in “The Illusionist,” just the quiet humanity he instills in each of his ubiquitous “everyman” roles.

Sadly, Biel is left with almost nothing to do, the victim of a script that utilizes her as a damsel masquerading as plot device. None of the memorable scenes in the film involve her character, perhaps further perpetuating the typecast that Biel belongs firmly entrenched in 20th century American suburbia, not some long-gone countryside in Vienna.

The film’s biggest flaw has nothing to do with magic, artifices or even the dark arts. Rather, “The Illusionist” builds a full head of steam and then hits an emotional brick wall two-thirds of the way through the journey. Instead of further mining his largely fascinating characters, Burger chose to pull off a narrative sleight of hand – the plot putters along for another 20 minutes before dropping a stunning final-act denouement.

Burger’s ploy doesn’t quite work. The characters in this film are paramount, the plot secondary – a shame considering the impending arrival of Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” the story of rival magicians dueling in turn-of-the-century London. Given the star power involved in that film – Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine – it’s hard to imagine “The Illusionist” standing the test of time, given its decidedly ordinary plot saved by effective execution. At the very least, Burger’s film has launched an impressive opening salvo in a duel between the year’s two magic-driven period pieces.

“The Illusionist” is a fine film, even enchanting on occasion. In a day and age where solid films are all too rare, it stands head and shoulders above the tripe currently laying waste to America’s multiplexes. Like any great magic trick, it lingers in the mind, leaving audiences gasping for more. But if Burger and his crew had pushed the envelope, they could have left audiences with an achievement worthy of remembrance for years, rather than months.