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Somewhere between obfuscation and contrivance lies Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, a movie about magic that’s making its appearance a gasp away from the same-themed Illusionist. Nolan and his co-writer/brother, Jonathan Nolan, adapted a novel by Christopher Priest about two late-19th-century London magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), whose friendship turns into a hostile rivalry after an onstage accident. Borden’s got talent, Angier’s got charisma, and when Borden creates an illusion that confounds even those in the biz, Angier goes a bit nuts. Taking into consideration its subject matter and Nolan’s time-reversing puzzler Memento, a few confusing developments are to be expected. But unlike the writer-director’s debut, The Prestige doesn’t offer a conclusion that’s thought-provoking so much as dismissible. All the more so because of the facile links used to get there: Fake beards are enough to get one of the competitors picked, more than once, as the other’s volunteer. (Pop quiz: Name two things wrong with that premise.) The dramatic turns are often predictable. (Guess what happens when Borden shows his worried wife a trick, tells her there are indeed ways it could go wrong, then reassures her anyway?) And the magicians’ attempts to trounce each other are so precisely volleyed it all becomes a big bore (excepting a pivotal love affair that might as well have popped out of a hat). The cast, however, is stellar, with Jackman and Bale perfecting American and cockney accents, respectively, and bringing the proper amount of menace to their roles; in lesser parts, David Bowie is an inspired choice to play alleged mad scientist Nikola Tesla, and Scarlett Johansson pushes her boobs higher than they’ve ever been pushed before. The Prestige has a lovely look, too, with dapper period costumes and Batman Begins–rich browns and deep golds courtesy of the movies’ shared cinematographer, Wally Pfister. But like The Illusionist’s, The Prestige’s finale is a machine-gun assault of exposition—though with a helluva lot more interesting intricacy—that will vanish from your thoughts like so many coins from a magic man’s hand.—Tricia Olszewski