Director: Neil Burger
Stars: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel
** (out of five)
EdwardNortonis a pretty amazing actor, and there are probably worse ways to spend an evening than watching him be all mysterious while decked out in period formal wear. But that’s pretty much all The Illusionist has.
The film, adapted and directed by Neil Burger from a short story by Steven Millhauser, is ostensibly a tragedy about a mysterious stage magician — Norton’s character, Eisenheim the Illusionist - and his explosive impact on the city of Vienna sometime in the early years of the last century.
Eisenheim just wants to baffle the crowds with his floating butterfly handkerchief tricks and his dime-store spiritualism, but the insecure and vain Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) sees him as a populist agitator who might complicate his designs on the throne. Worse, Eisenheim seems to be undermining Leopold’s courtship of aristocrat Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), leading the prince to commission Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to denounce Eisenheim as a fraudster.
That’s how the movie sets itself up, and that’s how Burger plays it out, for 100 strangely ossified minutes — people exchanging veiled threats in drawing rooms, or being grandiose in old theatres. It’s not that the actors don’t look great in their period costumes - even Giamatti, who has in the past transformed a tuxedo into a full-body napkin, cuts a strikingly good figure in Ngila Dickson’s exquisite designs — it’s just that nothing much really happens, even when a murder subplot kicks into gear.