Picks and Pans Review: The Illusionist

updated 08/28/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
DRAMA

Apparently, Vienna in 1900 was the safest place imaginable. The city's chief inspector Uhl (Giamatti) has nothing to do but skulk about at the astonishing performances by master illusionist Eisenheim (Norton). His dubious mission, given to him by the envious crown prince (the ever-villainous Sewell), is to investigate Eisenheim for fraud.

When a real crime finally does occur—the prince's fiancée Sophie (Biel) is murdered soon after rekindling an affair with Eisenheim, her long-lost love—Uhl turns up the heat on the magic man. These two actors make formidable onscreen opponents, between Norton's poker faces and Giamatti's steely gazes. But in a classic magician's misdirection, the powerhouse performances disguise a vaporous plot by writer-director Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin). Instead of an awestruck "How'd they do that?" one wonders dejectedly, "Is that all there is?" (PG-13)

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