Writer-director Neil Burger crafted his debut feature, Interview With The Assassin, into a prime example of clever-for-its-own-sake filmmaking: It's a mock documentary profiling a man who might possibly have been John F. Kennedy's second assassin. As "counter-myth," Burger's made-up story seemed at least as plausible as the quasi-fictional theories floated in JFK, but it wasn't much more than a shrewd exercise in conspiracy buffery, free of any historical insight. Burger's follow-up, The Illusionist, pulls off another cinematic—and this time, literal—sleight-of-hand in telling the story of a great magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Again, the results are reasonably clever and impeccably executed, but one of these days, Burger is going to have to pull more from his hat than just the rabbit. A zinger of a twist only counts when there's something more substantial at stake.
Cast out of Vienna as a poor young boy after getting caught in an adolescent fling with a duchess, the mysterious Edward Norton returns 15 years later as a celebrated illusionist who dazzles audiences with stage tricks like raising flowers from a pot of dirt and pulling disappearing acts. Norton's wildly popular show draws interest and suspicion from crown prince Rufus Sewell, who attends a performance with fiancée Jessica Biel, the grown-up duchess of Norton's youth. The rivalry between the prince and the enigmatic trickster grows ugly during the performance, and grows uglier still when Sewell enlists chief inspector Paul Giamatti to uncover Norton's secrets. Meanwhile, Norton pursues his lost love Biel against his better judgment.
With Prague recast as a handsome stand-in for Vienna, The Illusionist evokes the period to meticulous effect, establishing a moody, vaguely sinister aura that could stand in for Salem during a witch-hunt. Assisted by the great Ricky Jay, the performance sequences incorporate CGI with authentically old-fashioned effects, but they're far more bewitching than the actual magician, who hides too much behind a glum poker face. The only multi-dimensional character is Giamatti, who's torn between a prince who controls his political future and investigative instincts that tug him in another direction. He can't make the Statue Of Liberty disappear, but at least he can carry a movie.