Steven Millhauser’s 1990 short-story collection, “The Barnum Museum,” ends with “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the mysterious tale of a brilliant magician whose most successful stage illusions are left largely unexplained.
It’s set in late-19th-century Vienna, where the reign of the Hapsburgs is collapsing, and theaters are filled with “ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of magicians its secret desire for annihilation.”
Writer-director Neil Burger’s movie version, its title shortened to “The Illusionist,” suggests much the same thing — up to a point. But then Burger feels the need to explain Eisenheim and his apparently supernatural powers, while adding a love story and a murderous aristocrat to the mix. The spell cast by the simplicity of the original story is broken.
Worse, Burger never gets close to dramatizing Millhauser’s theory that the Empire was inviting self-destruction and signaling its readiness by embracing stage magic. The second film by the creator of “Interview With the Assassin,” an intriguing 2002 docudrama about the JFK murder, “The Illusionist” suggests sophomore-slump over-reaching. There’s a stillborn quality to much of the film, which drags when it should be exhilarating.
What keeps the movie watchable are the delightfully eccentric performances of Edward Norton, who plays the illusionist as a self-effacing enigma, and Paul Giamatti, cast as Chief Inspector Uhl, a suspicious, ambitious, toadying policeman who means to trap Eisenheim. They are almost the only characters in Millhauser’s story, and they remain the only people of interest in the film.
Burger’s uninspired additions to the tale include Eisenheim’s childhood sweetheart, the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel), and her cruel fiancé, the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), who beats women, abuses his power and plans to overthrow his father. While it’s true that Burger needed something to expand a 22-page story into a 110-minute movie, neither the duchess nor the prince move it in a compelling direction.
Once they’re introduced, the story descends into familiar melodrama. Eisenheim and the duchess are supposed to be lifelong soulmates, but even an extended flashback sequence featuring younger actors fails to make their devotion believable.
In his first scene, Sewell’s prince is so nasty and absurdly jealous that the actor has nowhere to go with the role. Biel is similarly limited. Not for a moment is the duchess given a reason to be attached to this monster.
This romantic triangle is so driven by contrivances that you may find yourself looking forward to a return to Eisenheim’s stage tricks and apparitions. Accompanied by Philip Glass’ dreamy music, imaginatively photographed by Dick Pope, these “magic shows,” which include what appear to be visits with the dead, are probably what you’ll remember most about “The Illusionist.”
In Millhauser’s story, Eisenheim’s extraordinary final performance is “viewed by some as a triumph of the magician’s art, by others as a fateful sign.” In the movie, it’s just an excuse to set up a twist ending that owes far too much to “The Usual Suspects.” Giamatti is required to deliver this logic-defying wrap-up, and he just seems embarrassed.