"A Mixed Bag of Tricks"
by Scott Mantz
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
"Are you watching closely"? asks the question that kick-starts "The Prestige," director Christopher Nolan's ambitious follow-up to last year's critically acclaimed and commercially successful superhero epic, "Batman Begins." Turns out it wasn't just a question — it was a warning. That's because the big screen version of Christopher Priest's 1996 novel of the same name — adapted by Nolan with his screenwriting brother Jonathan — is a baffling, complex, all-too-serious affair that requires your undivided attention from the get-go.
But sophisticated moviegoers who are patient and disciplined enough to stay the course will find themselves duly rewarded, as "The Prestige" is filled with lots of suspenseful twists and turns, deeply engaging performances from co-stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale and a powerful conclusion that will make you want to see it again in an effort to better understand it. And really, how often can you say that about a Hollywood movie these days?
"The Prestige" tells the story of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two ambitious and very different young magicians seeking fame and fortune in turn-of-the-century London. Angier is the flashier, more endearing showman of the two, while Borden lacks the charm and panache to showcase his talents. Their competitive rivalry starts off respectful enough, but they soon become bitter enemies obsessed with outdoing each other's tricks to the point where neither man will let anything — or anyone — stand in their way.
"The Prestige" — which refers to the big moment of truth in a conjurer's trick — has the distinction of being the year's second film about magic to hit theaters after last summer's sleeper hit, "The Illusionist." (Actually, it's the third if you count Woody Allen's "Scoop," which also featured "Prestige" co-stars Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson.) But where "The Illusionist" was a whimsical love story that was told in chronological order, "The Prestige" is a psychological battle of wits that's told in a much more complex non-linear format.
And that's both the best thing and the worst thing about it, as the film is just as fascinating as it is convoluted. Then again, what did you expect from Christopher Nolan, the innovative filmmaker behind 2001's masterful, backwards-moving thriller "Memento"? Actually, Nolan deserves credit for staying on his creative course after two successful studio films — 2002's "Insomnia" and 2005's "Batman Begins" — and if "The Prestige" proves anything, it's that he has no intention of abandoning his challenging approach anytime soon.
Christian Bale — working with Nolan again after "Batman Begins" — and Hugh Jackman both give strong performances, but since both of their characters become increasingly unlikable, it's hard to care about what's at stake. Scarlett Johansson is underdeveloped as the pawn caught between the two rivals, but at least Michael Caine — also an alumnus from "Batman Begins" — gives the movie its heart as Jackman's loyal mentor. And keep an eye out for amusing appearances from David Bowie as radical inventor Nikola Tesla and Andy Serkis (Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings") as his manipulative assistant.
Moviegoers who are looking for a risky, challenging, thought-provoking film will likely get more than they bargained for with "The Prestige." It's frustrating to watch — especially the first time around — and at 2 hours and 10 minutes, it's a bit too long. On the other hand, it's never dull, it'll keep you on your toes and it's bound to stimulate conversation in an effort to figure it all out. And really, how often can you say that about a Hollywood movie these days?
VERDICT: SEE IT!