In fact, the ending is so neat and tidy, you'd think it had been produced by Martha Stewart. But even the trick bait-and-switch finale can't save The Illusionist from the great problems of the costume drama.
First off: the costumes. Why is it that in any film set in the sartorial past (The Illusionist occurs in turn-of-the-century Vienna), everyone looks like they just bought their clothes? Not a crease or wrinkle, no rips or dirt. I can only assume that either everyone in 1901 was extremely fastidious in their use of dry cleaning, or the costumers couldn't be bothered to age the clothing.
Except for the street urchins. Their faces are carefully daubed with soot, and their clothing seems to have come from the Vagabond 5000 line. It doesn't exactly look worn, but it does look like it's been pre-washed by sweat-shop workers in Thailand.
On the other hand, everyone's watches, gadgets and trinkets are covered with a lovely coat of patina, as though Viennese law demanded that no metal object could be used unless it had been aged for 100 years.
So on props and costumes, I'd give The Illusionist an A for "annoying." Its other big problem is the accents. Why is it that in all films set in Foreigncountryland, everyone speaks English with a slight accent? Listening to actors say "Vot iz ziss?" gives the film the kind of authenticity one finds in Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride.
Even Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti, two guys who, if trapped in a paper bag, would have no trouble escaping solely by the use of their acting skills, seem somewhat stymied by the demand for fakey old-time Euro-accents. When they're not talking, each of them is great. Every glance and expression exudes meaning and restraint, but when they have to utter the stiff dialogue in the stiff style demanded of the period piece, they chafe like monkeys in wool underwear.
The story, though, is not bad. Norton plays Eisenheim the Illusionist, a master magician who, in his youth, was in love with the beautiful Sophie (Jessica Biel). Sadly, Sophie was royalty, and Eisenheim was a carpenter's son, so the powers that be decided to act as a plot twist and interfere with their teen love.
Twenty years later, Eisenheim returns from a journey to the Far East and again encounters Sophie, who is now engaged to the evil Prince Leopold, first in line for the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Leopold is played by Rufus Sewell, whose features are far too dark for him to play anything but a scheming villain or moody goth punk. I like Sewell, but he, too, goes for the stodgy style that I can only assume director Neil Burger enforced on everyone. Still, after doing his best mustache twirl for most of the film, he gives Leopold a bit of humanity in his final scene.
The only one who's natural in this milieu is, strangely, Jessica Biel. She doesn't fall for the stagey stylings and winds up seeming more human than the more seasoned actors.
The Illusionist isn't really about acting and costumes, though; it's about the big surprise ending. While I'm tired of this kind of story, at least in The Illusionist, it's used to draw into question the ease with which we assign hero and villain roles in a film. Norton seems to be aware of this all the way through, and he plays his character with a nice ambiguity.
But an ending like this that successfully plays with our expectations also cheapens a film. The Illusionist is a one-shot: Once you've seen it, you never need to see it again. Fight Club managed this bait-and-switch in a way that deepened further viewings, but the Shyamalan style that Burger executed here makes further viewings pointless.
It's too bad, because Burger's last film, the ultra-low-budget Interview With the Assassin, had all the trickiness and none of the flaws of The Illusionist. While far from perfect, it was at least tremendously original, and that's not a charge that could ever be leveled against The Illusionist.