Thursday, September 07, 2006


“Don’t tell the secret,” admonish the ads for The Illusionist. Which it may in fact be, if you don’t notice the actor (or character) who appears in two separate roles (or guises), which is to say if you watch this film passively & inert. That may be what director Neil Burger (Interview with The Assassin) expects. It would explain why, for example, he chose to build this film around two strong actors, Edward Norton in the title role & Paul Giamatti, neither of whom is even remotely credible as a turn-of-the-last-century Middle European, and an actress, Jessica Biel, whose wooden performance would have been an embarrassment in a high school play. Norton & Giamatti, tho, are fabulous, especially the latter, & reason enough to pay the exorbitant sum to catch this bon-bon before it descends to Netflix.

We’re in an age when men with character-actor skills & range (Depp, Penn, Cheadle, Bill Murray, Tommy Lee Jones, Macy & Spacey in addition to these two) get to take on leading roles, which means that, for male actors at least, this is an exceptional moment. Not that we haven’t seen this occasionally in the past, from Orson Welles to Jack Nicholson (I’d include the early DeNiro, before he started mailing in every performance), but all too often these have been exceptions while most of the leading roles have gone to good looking stiffs, from Rock Hudson to Robert Redford to Paul Newman to Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck & Brad Pitt. That’s a world in which Harry Ford could legitimately claim he’s deserved an Oscar (especially for The Fugitive), but thank heavens for the likes of Robert Duvall & Terrence Howard.

Occasionally one of these actors will have a leading man’s looks, like Depp, Norton, Matt Dillon or Samuel L. Jackson, but that can be a distraction. It would not take much editing to turn Giamatti’s police inspector into the leading role in The Illusionist, even tho Norton has the title role. Giamatti makes every scene a work of art & the climactic collage scene at the end turns entirely on his eyes & the corners of his mouth – that is the true secret of The Illusionist.

In retrospect, it’s interesting to think of The Lord of the Rings as centering on a character actor, Elijah Wood, surrounded in part by two Leading Stiffs in Viggo Mortensen & Orlando Bloom, tho Bloom hadn’t done anything as an actor yet & Mortensen used his role as Aragorn to transform himself from a film heavy into a leading man. (Robert Mitchum may have been the last man to have pulled that off, tho Humphrey Bogart is sort of the icon of the move.) One of the conundra confronting the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is that director Gore Verbinski doesn’t seem to know how to balance Depp’s o’er-the-top style with Bloom’s earnest-but-affectless acting. What a shame Verbinski doesn’t have the sense or skill to play these two very different models of what theater might be off of one another!


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