The Illusionist Can't Finish Its Trick

Steven Millhauser’s short story Eisenheim the Illusionist is athreadbare one. Focusing on the mysterious Eisenheim and his seemingly-otherworldly magic unleashed on turn-of-the-century Vienna, the story is a bullet point rundown of Eisenheim's exploits rather than a solid narrative.

Neil Burger, writer-director of the 2002 mockumentary Interview with the Assassin, tries to liven up the short story with The Illusionist, released in September. But while his cinematic adaptation has more concrete plot elements, quantity doesn't equal quality.

Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is an unparalleled illusionist. He makes orange trees grow instantaneously, sketches portraits with only his mind and conjures spirits. While dazzling audiences in Vienna he woos Sophie (Jessica Biel), the aristocratic flower he loved as a child but was separated from because of class differences. Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), all but betrothed to Sophie, senses something amiss with Eisenheim and tasks Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) with keeping tabs on him.

When someone dies as a result of this love triangle, The Illusionist gains its surest footing. The characters are given the depth and a sense of purpose lacking earlier in the film, resulting in a real sense of consequence: People are hurt. People die. People are punished for their crimes.

This shift is visible in the visual palette of the film, as well. Cinematographer Dick Pope adequately shoots the Czech Republic for 19th century Austria. But when the film changes gears, his visual landscape becomes eerie and phantasmagoric. This accentuates the scenes of Eisenheim summoning ghosts, but also reflects the doom surrounding every character.

Unfortunately, Burger shatters this mood. Unsatisfied with his better-than-average costume drama, he tries being clever and throws in a twist ending ripped beat-for-beat from The Usual Suspects. The costly tone and ethereal aesthetic are dropped, replaced with a shallow happy ending and all the sunshine that goes with it.

The great narrative crime here is that Burger leads us to care for characters in certain ways -- Eisenheim, the unfairly persecuted magician; Sophie, the unfairly repressed innocent; Leopold, the unfair jerk. Then he makes us squirm as, in a heartbeat, our heroes turn unjustifiably villainous.

The Illusionist reveals that Burger has a lot to learn as a writer-director. He should be commended for an ambitious expansion of a fairly barebones short story. But his storytelling abilities aren’t yet adequate enough to pull off the tricks he attempts here.