Whoops….Chris Nolan‘s The Prestige (Touchstone, 10.20) is a “smarter”, more ambitiously constructed turn-of-the-century magician movie than Neil Burger‘s The Illusionist…but it’s so complex and so into cinematic sleight-of-hand with too-obscure hints that it’s something of a struggle to make heads or tails out of what you’ve just seen when it’s all over. And that ain’t good.

Groups of journos were standing around after the all-media screening at the Westwood Avco last Wednesday night trying to sort out what they understood vs. what they didn’t get at all. When moderately with-it types are admitting confusion to each other after a film, that film, trust me, is dead meat with the public. The Prestige may wind up satisfying the extra-smarties and the Nolan freaks, but that’s a fairly small assembly.
All of the best movies are easily understood by the dummies, but they also excite the smarty-pants types with their thematic profoundity or ace-level brush strokes or whatever. An expensive movie that appeals only to the smarties has essentially written its own death sentence.
The Illusionist may not be as much of a intriguing brain-tease as The Prestige — perhaps not as handsomely produced or multi-layered — but at least you can understand it without spending 15 or 20 minutes sorting out the plot details with friends, which is what you’ll probably be doing after you see the Nolan film. On top of which the two magician characters, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale , are strident obsessives and not very likable. Maybe it’ll turn into a cult hit down the road, but that’s a DVD matter. Bottom line is that another keenly anticipated film has bitten the dust.
“Nolan’s approach might be too cool,” Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt has written. “Audiences might enjoy this cinematic sleight of hand, but the key characters are such single-minded, calculating individuals that the real magic would be to find any heart in this tale. So the question is whether audiences find any emotional hook amid all this cleverness. So tangled are the tricks and plot lines that the story’s characters are little more than sketches. Remove their obsessions, and the two magicians have little personality.”
Variety‘s Dennis Harvey has written that the film’s “capper moment” — the payoff known in magician parlance as “the prestige” — is “precisely where Nolan’s plush period mystery goes from middling to messy. Tale of dueling magicians takes itself awfully seriously, yet might have ideally suited a 1938 programmer pitting Karloff against Lugosi. Combined high polish, so-so character involvement, and a confusing denouement won’t help this handsome production once word-of-mouth trumps alluring advance come-ons.
“While complicated intrigue might have fascinated in Christopher Priest‘s novel, it tends to overwhelm Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s adaptation. Pic insists on a depth of human emotion that isn’t developed — protags emerge as one-dimen- sional, despite the efforts of two of our best leading actors — amid increasingly elaborate, uninvolving plot mechanizations.
“Pic’s resolution suddenly admits to fantastical and hitherto-unsuspected elements. It’s a flame-out likely to send most viewers home perplexed. Clearly, Nolan is aiming for something else. But the delight in sheer gamesman- ship that marked his breakout Memento doesn’t survive this project’s gimmickry and aspirations toward Les Miserables-style epic passion.”