Does the title, The Illusionist refer to the main charachter or does it refer to its director, Neil Burger? Because The Illusionist is just that; an illusion. As this story of love and magic unfolds, it became very apparent that Burger's script and directing style is fairly immature. It appears to be really good, but the use of smoke and mirrors (quite literally) can't hide this film's mediocrity for the full 2 hours.
Eisenheim (Norton), a one-time poor peasant of the country side, has become an extremely proficient stage magician in turn of the century Vienna. During one of his infamous shows, Eisenheim asks for a volunteer from the audience. The fiancee of the Crown Prince (who is also in attendance) volunteers willingly and it is then that Eisenheim discover this woman (Biel) is his long lost love from their adolescent years. What ensues is Eisenheim's plot to get his girl back and expose the corruptness of the Crown Prince, all the while keeping the chief inspector (Giamatti) off his back. Of course tricks and illusions come into play as the tensions mount. As his illusions become more and more ellaborate, the people of the town begin to think these aren't tricks at all, but he may actually have a divine power. To be honest, the audience in the theater doesn't know either. I went back and forth trying to decide for myself, which was a lot of fun.
First of all, the performances are brilliant. Brilliant. Giamatti is always amazing and he is no different here. Within 5 minutes, Giamatti's charisma and strength as an actor is brought to bare and a huge smile crossed my lips as I knew this was going to be a treat. His grumpy disposition and those huge, piercing eyes were perfect for this pseudo-villainous, against typecast role. Edward Norton doesn't make bad performances or bad movies for that matter, and his facial features were perfect for this role of a mysterious outsider who conjures spirits and mesmerizews people. Rufus Sewell, who plays the ferocious and villainous Crown Prince Leopold surprised me a great deal. I recognized him from the Zorro series and Tristan & Isolde. He was deliciously mean and corrupt and reminded me very much of an older Jude Law. Throw Jessica Biel into the mix for.... well, the hottie factor (an unfair comment since she does actually show some decent acting chops) and we've got an A-list cast that is nothing short of amazing.
As the story went along, especially after about 45 minutes, I began to think to myself, "This is really good and it may just have a shot at an Oscar nod." But as it began to wind down, it became apparent that the story, although original and interesting, was actually fairly predictable and kind of corny; especially the very end. However, although I had it predicted correctly (as did everyone I'm sure, as it was actually very obvious), there were pangs in my chest of uncertainty. This coupled with the amazing performances and the fun-ness factor of the illsusions kept me very interested.
To make the illusion more convincing, the producers have hired the great Phillip Glass for the film's score. It is truly amazing and some of Glass' best work in my opinion as it really sets the mood well. It is very reminiscent of a Hitchcock film or Basic Instinct. Perfect.
Since this is 19th centruy Vienna, of course the costumes and sets have to be convincing. And they are. They are, they are, they are. From Biel's beautiful gowns to the Crown Prince's amazing looking uniform, down to even the peasant folk, the costume designers may be the only group from this film to come away with an Academy Award. They are gorgeous and eye-catching and add a great deal to this movie's style and mood. In one of the first scenes of the film, we see Giamatti's character walking down the long hallway of the royal palace to meet with the Crown Prince. The hallways and main office in the palace are fantastic feats of design and authenticity. Bordering on distracting actually, are these great costumes and sets. The only disappointing factor was we never get to see the town from a distance. Everything is shot on a set and it is apparent. But that's nit-picking.
So it comes down to this; almost everything in this film teeters on perfect: the performances, the music, the dialogue (yes, even the corny lines), the sets, the costumes, the music and the illusions (some of which were "real"- i.e. not CGI). There is every ingredient to make this movie great. The only reason I can't give it a huge thumbs up, is for the cliche and predictable ending. It lacked a true climax or an original idea. If not for this, I would put this movie in the best of the year category. I still recommend it to all. It's a very good time and in fact, I would even watch it again simply for the fantabulous performances and to try and figure out how some of those tricks were pulled off (remember, many were true magic tricks, supposedly). So I recommend giving this one a try, you won't believe your eyes.
Listen to my audio review on Podcast Episode #14
IMDb.com - full cast and crew
Official Site - include trailer and goodies
FLIXSTER PROFILE for The Illusionist