"The secret impresses no one," Michael Caine's character reminds his proteges in The Prestige. In other words, you better have something else up your sleeve besides actual "magic" because magic is lousy entertainment. It's cold and impersonal and usually has no dramatic heft. Most magic tricks are performed at a quick pace because the whole thing depends on a moment's misdirection and because if it didn't go by quickly, no one would ever sit for it. Even when it's successful, a magic trick earns nothing but a polite clap. Christopher Nolan should have thought harder about this, because his film has the same deficiencies. All of its energy goes into structure and the concealment of hollow secrets. The film's backbone is an elaborate timeline that moves backwards, splits into two threads and then wobbles forward again, leaving the actors without a leg to stand on. Nolan's much-enjoyed puzzleboard picture Memento had a reason for its structural acrobatics, but The Prestige just wants to challenge the memory and attention of the audience. This isn't a movie, it's a game of Concentration.
Turn of the century London is the setting for a friendly rivalry between two up-and-coming magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jackman sports a west-of-the-Rockies American patter while Bale puts on an Eastend Cockney brogue that probably earned him high-fives from Michael Caine. Jackman's wife, played by where-are-they-now actress Piper Perabo, is killed early on in a scary water-tank trick that goes wrong. When Jackman blames Bale, the rivalry gets un-friendly. Jackman turns up at Bale's bullet-catching show and replaces a stage charge in his pistol with a real bullet. He becomes even more irate when Bale makes a great leap forward in the magic world by coming up with that rarest of things -- an interesting trick. It's a little something called The Transporting Man. He steps into a box on one side of a stage and then instantly re-emerges from an identical box on the other side of the stage. Hmmm...how does he do that? It's not a spoiler to tell you that there's no satisfying answer.
The big question you're probably asking yourself is whether or not The Prestige recognizes a difference between magic and wizardry, and whether it limits itself to the real-world possibilities of the time period and the laws of physics. I won't spill the beans, but I will say that one of the film's key plot points relies on not one, but two out-of-this-world contrivances in order to keep the whole story afloat. If the director was thinking a little more clearly, he could have solved these twin difficulties with more creative casting decisions, but I'll say no more on that score since it won't make sense unless you've seen the film. On the other hand, there is one great piece of casting in the film -- David Bowie as Serbian-American inventor, Nicola Tesla. A real figure from history, Tesla was an enormously influential pioneer of electricity as well as a known occultist. The film sets him up as a mountain-dwelling shaman of spiritual energy and a dark doppelganger of Thomas Edison, who only wants to use electricity for light bulbs. Bo-ring.
Scarlett Johansson, who doesn't seem to fear overexposure despite appearing in every single film released this year, co-stars as a "lovely assistant" type who continually switches loyalties between Jackman and Bale's characters. Andy Serkis, better known as the voice of the CGI-created ring-junkie Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, also has a minor role as an intimidating Tesla stooge. He's actually quite creepy in the part, and will hopefully get more acting gigs after this. Did Christopher Nolan recognize the wealth of acting talent at his fingertips in this film and decide that it wasn't a priority? I think the answer has to be yes. He continually undercuts the performances of the actors by mismatching their dialogue exchanges with crucial information the audience needs to interpret them, as well as pulling the rug out from under the characters with big revelations, and so on. And yes, I understand that this is Nolan's idea of a genre picture, and he's just tinkering with form, but I think this story would have benefited greatly by being told in a less deliberately fractured way.
At one point in the film, Caine -- is there any actor who is better at dispensing soothing, sage advice? -- reminds the youngsters that continually upping the ante of their magic shows will only attract people "hoping for an accident," but they don't listen. The ante is raised again and again, putting Bale and Jackman on a collision course to see who can be the master of illusion, which sounds like a bigger deal than it is. You have to keep reminding yourself that this story takes place at a time when entertainment choices were slim. The last thing I'll say about the film is that if you want to enjoy it on its own level, disregard the advertising tagline that urges you to "watch closely." I was watching pretty closely right from the beginning, and thirty minutes into it, I wrote down two words in my notebook. "----- Hugh?" I'm leaving the first word out for your benefit, but if I could guess the film's biggest secret so easily (and I could), then it might be a good idea to go out and get popcorn once or twice during the movie.