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Smoke and mirrors

Two intriguing films promise much, but do they deliver?


The magician and the lady: Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist. - PHOTO BY GLENN WILSON, COURTESY OF YARI FILM GROUP
  • Photo by Glenn Wilson, Courtesy of Yari Film Group
  • The magician and the lady: Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist.

The art of magic and the art of moviemaking both rely on audience manipulation. A couple of new films--The Illusionist and The Quiet--try to pull the wool over viewers' eyes.

One is a Hollywoody romantic-thriller masquerading as art house cinema, while the other is a drama that revolves around issues of family dysfunction, sexual abuse, teenage anxiety and alienation. The central ruse involves guessing which film is better.

THE ILLUSIONIST, adapted from a Steven Millhauser tale and set in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, tells the tale of an esteemed magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), who falls in star-crossed love with Sophie (Jessica Biel), an ex-childhood sweetheart of higher social standing, now a duchess and fiancée of the supercilious Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim's popularity and truculence draw the ire of Leopold, who tries to shut down his production.

Meanwhile, Eisenheim surreptitiously tries to rekindle the sparks with Sophie. When she is murdered, this romantic trifle morphs into a surreal, messianic metaphor. A dolorous Eisenheim engages in a game of personal and political brinkmanship, channeling his legerdemain to incite the hoi polloi to low-grade insurrection against Sophie's suspected killer. Meanwhile, Eisenheim is hounded by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a Javert-style detective torn between protecting the crown and solving the murder-mystery.

Norton struggles with his Austrian accent (Biel doesn't even put up a fight), but he and Giamatti confirm their status as acting apotheoses. Their bravura, especially when together onscreen, is the engine that drives the film through a few torpid interludes.

Director Neil Burger fashions an atmospheric mise en scène complemented nicely by Philip Glass' ambient score. The direction is questionable in parts, particularly the choice to rely on digital sorcery to recreate classic 19th-century stage magic, which removes most of the wonderment from Eisenheim's wizardry.

Onscreen events build to a denouement constructed around extreme convention and contrivance, but one that allows Burger to slyly incorporate the film's audience into the sleight-of-hand milieu.

The biggest illusion in The Illusionist is concealing its conventional plot behind a curtain of period costume and set design. The show will entertain casual audiences, but anyone expecting highbrow indie theater will find mostly smoke and mirrors.

In THE QUIET, director Jamie Babbit attempts to conjure something trickier, but the film is really no more than a shell game of inconsistent characterizations, uncertain motives and fallow themes. From its outset, the denizens of this teen-angst thriller seem well-defined. After the apparent death of her parents, Dot (Camilla Belle), a saturnine deaf-mute, is sent to live with her godparents (Edie Falco and Martin Donovan) and their daughter, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert). Nina is the proverbial cheerleading gamine resentful of Dot's intrusion into her social and family life. Falco's Olivia Deer is a chemically dependent harridan, while Donovan's Paul is the henpecked husband hopelessly out of touch with his teenage wild-child.

However, we soon discover the dark truths underlying this Potemkin village. During a midnight saunter past Nina's bedroom, Dot discovers Paul is a pedophilic paterfamilias carrying out an incestuous relationship with his daughter, who lacks the power to halt the abuse. Olivia's self-medication numbs the pain of her connubial deterioration and the evil she subconsciously suspects.

The jolt of these revelations is offset by the languor of their presentation and purpose. As Dot gravitates toward the role of Nina's protector, her motives remain as murky as Babbit's subfusc palette. Is Dot a deus ex machina sent for the aegis of her blond doppelganger? Is she trying to save Nina from a malady she also once suffered? Or, does she act out of some latent physical and/or emotional attraction?

It is not the questions that prove infuriating, but that Babbit fails to supply the tools necessary to answer them. Lacking explication, the Deers take in Dot because they do; Dot is "disabled" because she is; Paul molests his daughter because he wants to; and Dot comes to Nina's aid because she does. I would swear that Dot's predilection for Beethoven--partly established during her intrusive voiceover narratives--exists just so she can play "Moonlight Sonata" during the film's climax.

With its scandal-rag narrative, The Quiet's art-house aspirations are met solely through sotto voce mutterings, dim lighting and hypnagogic pacing. The disquieting final product is what might happen if David Cronenberg ever made a Lifetime TV movie.

The Illusionist and The Quiet open Friday in select theaters.

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