U.S. Release Date: October 20, 2006
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Aaron Ryder, Emma Thomas
Composer: David Julyan
Cast: Andy Serkis, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Jamie Harris
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (violence and disturbing images)

Dueling Magicians Drop the Wand
by Scott Holleran

Two rival magicians engage a deadly contest of wills in writer and director Christopher Nolan's carefully constructed but unfulfilling The Prestige, a Victorian-era vehicle starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as dueling artists.

They meet as apprentices who are part of the act, two dashing young gentlemen seen through flashbacks. The multi-layered story traces their ongoing war through marriage, children and, primarily, competing magic shows. Shaded in a dark, muted gray, with flickering candles and with Michael Caine on hand as an old showman, Nolan, who created last year's sharp comics adaptation, Batman Begins, puts each prop in place. He forgets to say abracadabra.

During a performance one night, the third act—known as the prestige, or the grand finale—goes horribly wrong and distrust is planted between the two assistants, who break off into solo shows. For a long time, the antagonism generates interest. After a continual back and forth, it becomes clear that the pair are embroiled in a lifelong conflict driven by envy, not ability, and seeing petty obsession reach its logical conclusion is less than enigmatic, let alone entertaining.

Wives, kids, lovers—everyone suffers and each magician sees to it that they do, quite consciously at that, which leaves one rooting for both to zap one another into oblivion. This they are liable to do with David Bowie showing up as mad scientist Nikola Tesla experimenting with electricity in Colorado.

Between violent opening acts that pulverize live birds and constantly pose the risk of death, one gradually becomes aware that this game of trick or treat exists strictly to deceive, not to elicit wonder; it is magic for its own sake.

The insular feeling permeates the movie, leaving Jackman flat and boring as the less talented performer—he looks as if he's struggling to stay focused—and the wild, malevolent (and mumbling as ever) Bale without sufficient contrast. The psychotic duo steal, spy and wait for vapid Scarlett Johansson to saunter in an embarrassing performance as the vamp.

With venomous spite as their only observable motive, multiple twists and turns—which cycle through toward the end and entail an element of mysticism—serve characters that are unworthy of admission.

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