The chief selling point of this Friday's "Now You See Me" isn't the heist-via-magic plot but its lavishly overstuffed cast: unlikely neurotic star Jesse Eisenberg, surprisingly durable Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, perpetual workhorses Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (whose willingness to turn in ensemble work for pretty much anyone has turned him, like Samuel L. Jackson, into one of the top ten actors for combined gross from all films, inflation unadjusted), James Franco's more entertaining brother Dave, the undervalued Isla Fisher and Mélanie Laurent, whose determination to be a bilingual domestic French star and familiar Hollywood presence simultaneously has not yet abated.
If you type "stacked cast" into Google, you get the cast of the short-lived Pamela Anderson sitcom "Stacked," which is unhelpful. Movies like "Now You See Me" generate attention with a number of strong actors whose combined presence automatically creates interest, ones generally overqualified for the work they're doing: their skill set exceeds what's asked of them, but their expert presence is nonetheless sorely appreciated. An exemplary recent example is the "Iron Man" trilogy, which coasts on little more than the wit and improvisatory energies of actors with a flair for specific types of eccentricity like Jeff Daniels, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, et al.
Larding a film with disproportionate numbers of famous familiar faces isn't new. In 1932 and 1933, MGM made demonstrated the basis for its claim to have signed "more stars than there are in heaven" with "Grand Hotel" and "Dinner At Eight," play adaptations allowing the studio to flaunt its thespian resources. In the early '40s, light-hearted wartime propaganda and morale boosters like "Stage Door Canteen" and "Follow The Boys" had studios throwing their entire casts into movies designed to string together as many bits of business, songs or comic interludes as possible with minimal narrative connecting tissue. These flimsy anthologies entertained audiences through sheer overload while hammering home the entertainment industry's patriotism and commitment to morale boosting. Similarly, overstuffed end-of-classical-H'wood behemoths like 1956's "Around The World In 80 Days" and 1963's "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" made spotting copious cameos one of their main attractions.
Current regular practitioners of the stacked cast include Woody Allen, whose casting announcements can be more entertaining than his movies (the forthcoming "Blue Jasmine" will have a hard time living up to imagined versions of what a movie co-starring Cate Blanchett, Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay could look like). Likewise Steven Soderbergh, though not all the time, and sometimes perversely/parodically so (2009's "The Informant!"'s supporting cast is an anthology of faded TV stars). Though many of Robert Altman's ensembles were heavier on relatively obscure character actors or personal favorites, 1992's "The Player" and the following year's "Short Cuts" were jammed with famous names — the former because it was set in Hollywood, the latter presumably to help with financing of a potentially unmarketable 3-hour Los Angeles epic. (Overtly modeled on Altman's "Nashville," Emilio Estevez's instantly forgotten day-Robert-Kennedy-was-shot "Bobby" threw together a haphazard ensemble — both Anthony Hopkins and Nick Cannon, why choose? — but failed to earn similar credibility.)
Sometimes this overcasting is a canny business move: the Wachowskis probably cast Korean pop star Rain in a tiny role in 2008's "Speed Racer" to boost the film's prospects in Asia (they also allowed people like John Goodman and Susan Sarandon to chew scenery to liven up and add humanity to the deliberately unreal aesthetic). Similarly, Lars von Trier probably had no problem rounding out the casts of "Dogville" and "Manderlay" with as many Hollywood names as possible to expand the audience for these otherwise difficult sells.
My favorite example of an eccentrically overstocked cast might be 1997's "The Fifth Element." Bruce Willis could (and has) carried entire action movies by himself, but here Chris Tucker's mugging throws his deadpan comic timing into sharp relief. In the same year as Atom Egoyan's sober "The Sweet Hereafter," it's fun to watch Ian Holm — whose resume includes the original Broadway production of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (a great performance captured in a 1973 film) — slumming for a presumably higher paycheck, bringing sharply acted life to a part that could've been lost in the chaos. Best of all, the equally overqualified Gary Oldman is the Ross Perot-accented villain "Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg." Some Oldman performances are indelible for entirely credible reasons (cf. his 1988 turn as the world's scariest soccer hooligan in "The Firm"), but only a production like "The Fifth Element" could give us the distinct pleasure of watching one of the finest working actors around conduct, with a straight face, a phone conversation with a gigantic ball of evil hurtling through outer space.