Dir. Neil Burger; writ. Burger, Steven Millhauser (short story); feat. Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell (PG-13)
The most surprising thing about the period-piece murder mystery/drama The Illusionist is that Edward Norton can, despite all evidence to the contrary until now, deliver an underwhelming performance. That's good news for Jessica Biel, of 7th Heaven fame, since her even-more-lackluster performance as his lover is actually tolerable by comparison. It's even better news for Rufus Sewell, who manages, even as he gets repeatedly cast as the villain in films he's too good for, to outshine even the A-list names lording it over his in the credits.
In other words, The Illusionist, a mindbender about Eisenheim (Norton), an illusionist in 19th-century Vienna who has to do mental battle with the violent, possibly murderous Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell) for the heart of a young duchess (Biels), ain't exactly an actor's showcase. Even Paul Giamatti, as Chief Inspector Uhl - the prince's right-hand man, determined to discredit Eisenheim and prevent a political catastrophe - delivers a nuanced and surprisingly engaging performance that, for as good as it is, seems sort of run-of-the-mill for an actor of his talents.
If the relatively dull acting isn't enough to kill the film, a truly bizarre narrative structure - wherein Uhl is relating the events of the story, in flashback, to Leopold - leaves a viewer wondering why on earth any of what we're watching would need be narrated to a man who was pretty damn integral to the story he's hearing. Since the script is adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser (Eisenheim the Illusionist), this structure is obviously an attempt to force a literary narrative device upon celluloid, but it fails to work and does its best to distract from this unique and unusual film.
All of this together, along with some pretty odd cinematography, should be enough to sink The Illusionist, especially considering that Christopher Nolan's own magic-centric tale The Prestige is nearing release (and looks a hell of a lot more interesting). But in spite of all its clunky parts, there's something inspired in the story of Eisenheim's quest to be with the woman he's loved since childhood and bring down Leopold before the prince can lead a coup to steal the throne from his imperial father. You might sigh a lot getting to the final act, but once you're there ... well, let's just say, "Wow."
To reveal the nuts and bolts of the story's twists and turns would devastate the experience. Hell, to say that this film has twists and turns, especially considering its title, prompts one to begin anticipating possible surprise endings à la M. Night Shyamalan. And while that might be the case, director Neil Burger manages to deliver a payoff that surpasses anything Shyamalan has accomlished since Unbreakable. Maybe that's the film's problem: Burger. He's a big-picture kind of director, exceedingly disinterested in things as petty as actors' performances. Luckily for him, his big picture, or rather his ending, makes up for the iffy experience of getting there.