‘The Illusionist’ fails to make Jessica Biel disappear

In “The Illusionist,” director and screenwriter Neil Burger ’85 adapts a Steven Millhauser short story for the big screen. The resulting film, though beautiful, displays some of the pitfalls that might result from adapting a five-page short story into an almost two-hour feature film for middle America.

The film is set in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century Vienna — a city populated by cleaned-up, velvet-clad WB stars and a talented illusionist who manages to ruffle some monarchial feathers. Edward Norton ’91 plays said illusionist, Eisenheim, a dashing young trickster who has captured the hearts of the masses and a young duchess (a mature Jessica Biel). Eisenheim’s tricks begin to raise the ire of the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell of “Tristan + Isolde”), setting into motion political turmoil that shakes up Viennese society.

The magician squares off repeatedly against both Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, the sometimes-narrator who superbly huffs and puffs his way through the film’s few comic scenes) and the prince, swapping masculine posturing and snide remarks about the origins of power. Then, the typically star-crossed lovers decide to flee (“As long as we’re alive he’ll hunt us, and if he finds us he’ll kill us,” laments a post-coital Jessica Biel).

Norton is stellar as Eisenheim, perpetually toeing the line between enchanting and unsettling. He commands both the Viennese stage and the silver screen, first with a sauntering bravado and then — as his prospects for success begin to look dismal — a series of gaunt scowls and progressively creepier illusions. Biel, whose very name on the cast list threatens disaster, actually manages to keep it together fairly well: At times the vagary of her expression passes for mystery, at others it reads like abject confusion. The pair is generally natural and well cast, though one unimpassioned sex scene (composed of anonymous hunks of flesh rubbing each other), suggests that — despite Ms. Biel’s sexy semi-nude shoots for “Maxim” — nudity was not in the actors’ contracts and body doubles were hauled in instead.

In appropriate period-piece fashion, the decadence of the waning empire factors in almost as a character unto itself. The childhood romance between Eisenheim and Sophie is crafted through gauzy soft focus flashbacks, and scene transitions feature a technique that mimics the circular camera’s eye closing (though to the more Microsoft Office-savvy in the audience, this also feels cheesily reminiscent of Power Point’s circle transition effect).

Though technically a nearly masterful job by both the actors and director, Burger’s overreaching plot feels uncomfortably contrived. As the story progresses, one gets the feeling that maybe Burger is trying to juggle too many subplots, perhaps in an attempt to lend complexity to what would otherwise be just another period love story. While the movie’s first hour plays out along the lines of William Goldman’s “Princess Bride” (poor boy and rich girl fall in love, boy runs away under threats of arrest but returns to find that the rich girl’s new boyfriend is a jerk and decides to rescue her), the second act throws a lot of curve balls that, while providing opportunities for incredible sans-CGI magic tricks, feel awfully unnecessary. The Crown Prince’s megalomania and anti-democratic tendencies don’t add all that much to his character (we already know he’s the stereotypical bad guy) and, if anything, come across as a failed attempt at modern-day political commentary — really, what self-respecting audience member would dimple a chad for the Austro-Hungarian empire?

Even Eisenheim’s touted super natural powers seem more decorative than vital. Sure, it’s awfully nice to see him conjure butterflies and ghosts, bending the laws of nature to his will, but he’s still a poor entrepreneur kept from the woman he loves by the laws of the state.

For the surprise ending, Burger channels M. Night Shyamalan for a director-ex-deus-ex-machina that hasn’t held water since Haley Joel Osment was seeing dead people.

It’s not that “The Illusionist” is bad, per se, but there’s a pervading sense that it would have been better if Burger had just left the boy-meets-girl formula unfettered. Or left Jessica Biel to “Maxim.”

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