The MichaelVox Movie Review Weblog
Proudly Spewing Unsolicited Film Opinion Online Since 1996
August 13, 2006
San Jose Camera Cinema Club
Edward Norton. Paul Giamatti. Jessica Biel.
Boy was I looking forward to this one. Norton and Giamatti are among the top tier of actors in their respective fields. And Biel is relatively cute and probably not able to ruin a film on her own. The trailer looked good. There was magic. There was love. What's not to like.
There are a couple of things that don't work in the movies. I keep thinking of the example of James Bond. He is always in peril, about to meet his demise in so many creative ways, but we know that he'll never be killed. He's freakin' James Bond! The franchise must go on and he must save the day. So while we watch with amusement, we rarely watch with any tension.
You also can't film a magician. We have seen just about everything in movies. There isn't a magician alive who can duplicate what we've all seen with special effects. Therefore, when Norton tosses a seed into a trash can, and causes an orange tree to grow quickly, onstage, we aren't as amazed as the turn-of-the-century Vienna crowd is. And rightly so. It is too hard to imagine what we would have seen had we been a theater-goer 100 years ago. Norton does card tricks and stuff disappears and he does tricks utilizing a mirror on stage. But none of these leave a modern-day moviegoer wondering how he did it. He did it because it's a Hollywood movie, that's how. When he conjures dead spirits to come talk to the audience, the extras on screen are understandably horrified, but we can just sit back and try and figure out how much money the filmmakers spent in post-production.
This isn't to say that the film is bad. It is beautiful to look at. The director uses coloring and light that recalls some of the first photographs you've ever seen. He uses an iris to change scenes, much like the first Edison footage or Chaplin used. Prague always looks good. Norton is believable and compelling and Giamatti is very good as the son-of-a-butcher with higher aspirations.
However, there isn't much to the story. A boy is good at magic. He intrigues a girl who is clearly out of his class. They sneak off together until they're discovered and he is forced to leave the country. He returns to find that she's due to marry the prince, who we know is a dickhead because he's played by Rufus Sewell. Their paths cross again, they want to be together, but the prince has too much power and can keep them apart. Norton must use all of his magician's cunning to find a way for them to be together.
There isn't much more to it than that. We are convinced that Norton is the smartest person in Vienna. We know this because he can fool the unfoolable. We know that Biel loves Norton because she said so at her own peril. We know that Sewell is a bad guy because he hunts, is rude, and there are rumors of abuse. And we know that Giamatti respects Norton on some level, but is loyal to a prince that he doesn't necessarily like or respect. Place in bowl and mix. Film movie.
There is what seems like a 30-second aha moment at the end where the camera twirls around Giamatti as he slowly (much more slowly than the audience) figures out what happened. The aha for the audience should come much, much sooner.
I'd still go watch Norton or Giamatti read a menu. I had high hopes for this film. But there really isn't much to it.
2006 Oscar Nominations:
~~Best Cinematography for Dick Pope