October 24, 2006

The Prestige's tricks dazzle, but final twist flops

“Are you watching closely?”

So asks Michael Caine in another of his meaty performances, this time as Cutter, an engineer of magical illusions in the Belle Epoque period piece The Prestige. Cutter is not precisely at the top of the game, but only because there is no top: In his business, a horrible mishap can occur at any time, especially when the Professor and the Great Danton, two competing magicians played with energy by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, respectively, frequently sabotage one another’s acts. Directing/screenwriting team Christopher and Jonathan Nolan knows better than to attempt to wow us, the modern audience, with silly period prestidigitation. Instead, they focus on backstage mechanics, where everyone knows the tricks of the trade, but the limits of personal ethics are, shall we say, still a bit murky.

Cutter continues: “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the Pledge; the magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, or a bird, or a man. He shows you this object, and pledges to you its utter normality. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal, but of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called the Turn; the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you don’t find it because, of course, you don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

And herein lies the great problem with The Prestige, and essentially the only hurdle it stumbles upon in its quest for greatness: The film relies too heavily on our willingness, as a modern audience, to be fooled. Like the Nolans’ previous thriller, Memento, there is a big twist of an ending, but The Prestige signals its surprise so far in advance that I was not even aware it was supposed to be a surprise. Imagine a murder mystery in which a suspect walks into the room covered in blood and is later established to have had means, motive, and opportunity; also throw in that the suspect never denies any accusations and has no alibi. Then imagine that the mystery’s twist ending is that the suspect is guilty. That mystery, like The Prestige, fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. Yes, to some extent, we can distract ourselves from the secret because we really do want to be fooled, both by illusions and by thrillers, but, at some point, the truth is so obvious that it cannot be ignored. It is one thing to know intellectually that a magician cannot fly, quite another to be able to see all the wires. On top of that, the twist ending, surprise or not, is unbelievable and lazy.

And yet, and yet, The Prestige is no kiddie magic show. It loses big on the ending, but it has plenty of chips on other squares, enough to warrant a recommendation. Where the plot itself falls through, the atmosphere thrives. I cannot help but compare its success here to the failure of this summer’s similarly themed The Illusionist. There was a movie that not only signaled ahead, but cheated reprehensibly in order to mask its secrets. Plus, its period elements were unconvincing, from the staged feel of even the outdoor scenes to Jessica Biel’s general inability to portray characters born before about 1990 (and she was born in ’82!).

As for The Prestige, say what you will about Scarlett Johansson’s acting; the woman knows how to wear a corset like she means it. As a stage assistant, she is, as Cutter notes, “the ultimate form of misdirection.” For their parts, Bale and Jackman are wonderfully entertaining and fully convincing as ruthless businessmen who happen to deal in magic. The actors have a great deal of fun with the material and hold it together, even as it goes soft all around them. Michael Caine upstages them all, which is quite a feat considering how far up the stage they are. The jolly old man gives the type of performance that makes you wonder how a 73-year-old can command that type of screen presence and want to watch every movie he has ever appeared in. It falls on him to deliver the opening monologue, from which I have been quoting. If you doubt the importance of that task, consider how Natalie Portman’s dull delivery sucked the energy right out of V for Vendetta’s early moments. Caine has the voice and skill to do these lines justice:

“But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That is why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the Prestige.”

This third act is the Professor’s specialty. He is a superior magician and pulls off tricks so well that the audience sometimes does not clap, too shocked to see how perfect the illusion has been. (Or was it an illusion?) Danton is the lesser magician but tthe greater showman by far. His megaphone charm wins the day. With this movie, the Nolans join the Danton school: They have an inferior trick, but they sure do know how to sell it. The Prestige has a great pledge and an even better turn, but, ironically, no prestige. After a boom and a flash, its credibility never reappears.