If Neil Burger's The Illusionist deserves credit for one thing, it's acting like an adult in a month dominated by NASCAR buffoons, kiddie CGI, raunchy teen comedies and airplanes overrun by motherfuckin' snakes. Visually sumptuous but emotionally barren, this period romantic thriller never quite dazzles but does entertain with a few predictable parlor tricks.
Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a self-made magician whose childhood romance with young duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel) is rekindled when the two meet during his performance in Vienna. Unfortunately, Sophie is betrothed to the decadent and corrupt Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a man known for beating his lovers to death when they displease him. When Sophie vows to leave Leopold, a struggle ensues and her body is found the next morning in a nearby river.
Devastated, Eisenheim designs a new trick, one that crosses into the supernatural and holds Leopold accountable for his actions. The conjurer's only obstacle is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a cagey pragmatist who vows to solve Sophie's murder and expose Eisenheim's "magic" as mere illusion.
With its marvelous period details and costumes, lush Prague locations and a cinematic tinge of sepia, The Illusionist pulls off its own sleight of hand by feeling like a better movie than it actually is. Art house trappings and shaky CGI effects work overtime to mask the predictable, crowd-pleasing script and high-profile actors with bad accents.
Burger fills the movie with clever notes scenes begin and end with an iris opening or closing but plays the police procedural element too seriously. The plot turns are obvious, and it's difficult to connect with the lovers' predicament.
Surprisingly, Norton is to blame. Tight-lipped and squinty eyed, his performance feels properly mysterious but lacks passion. Eisenheim is a wet blanket, never displaying the showmanship you'd expect from a great magician. Still, even on his worst day, Norton has enough raw charisma to hold an audience's attention.
Biel, on the other hand, is the kind of actor whose work rarely rises above her chiseled midriff, but here she's given enough dialogue to prove she can actually act. Sewell, who rarely gets the work he deserves, excels as the petty and jealous Leopold.
It's Giamatti, however, who runs away with the film. He gives Uhl a wonderfully world-weary flamboyance, rolling his eyes and gnashing his teeth with theatrical aplomb.
The goal of any magician is to turn skepticism into belief; an audience eager to surrender to the fantasy will walk away amused and astonished, but cynics will puzzle over the logistics of the trick. So it goes for The Illusionist. Though it demands a lighter, more mischievous touch, Burger works so hard to entertain that he nearly convinces us that his dime store deception is a grand illusion.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.