So many movies try to pull off big twists, but the ones that succeed are rare, because it's hard to make a twist seem surprising and logical: Most twists are either too obvious, or so nonsensical that they couldn't possibly be anticipated from the preceding scenes. Rarer still are cases like Exotica or Memento, where the twists not only work, but also add an extra layer of emotional resonance. After successfully establishing himself in Hollywood with Insomnia and Batman Begins, Memento director Christopher Nolan returns to another cinematic sleight-of-hand with The Prestige, a thriller about rival magicians that continually swipes the rug from under the audience's feet. It should come as no surprise that Nolan, working from Christopher Priest's novel, handles the plot's dense mechanics with Houdini-like grace and showmanship. But much like Nolan's debut feature Following, The Prestige stops at being an entertaining diversion, never finding that extra layer that would make it special.
The title refers to the "ta-dah" part of a magic trick, the piece of showmanship that comes after something ordinary has been transformed and it's time to set the world straight again. (As one character explains, the audience doesn't applaud when the pretty assistant gets sawed in half; she has to come back unharmed.) Apprenticed together in turn-of-the-century London, rival magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale become bitter enemies after Jackman's wife dies in a stage mishap that he blames on Bale. Though a superior showman, Jackman also harbors burning jealousy over Bale's extraordinary talent, so much so that he dispatches his beautiful assistant (Scarlett Johansson) to discover the secrets of Bale's act. Of particular interest to Jackman is a trick called The Transformed Man, in which Bale walks through a door on one side of the stage and reappears through a door on the other.
As Jackman and Bale's rivalry intensifies, their attempts to undermine each other go well beyond prankishness and into the pathological, but being tricksters by profession, they have to be elaborate in their deviousness. The Prestige's chief pleasure lies in their increasingly ornate games of deception, which Nolan orchestrates with a showman's aplomb. Even when the film detours to Colorado, where Jackman commissions Nikola Tesla (a brilliantly cast David Bowie) for a special engineering project, there's a strong sense that it will pay off down the line. And yet for all its surface dazzle, The Prestige shares with this year's earlier The Illusionist a certain core hollowness. Maybe that's a natural consequence of even the best magic shows: You can't help but feel duped.