– Summary –
Director : Don Scardino
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig, Zachary Gordon.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: Two antagonistic Vegas magicians team up to defeat an up-and-coming street magician, who is stepping in on their act.
What we think : Think Naked Gun with magicians, and that’s what you get with Burt Wonderstone, an inept Steve Carell vehicle offering few scattered laughs, and one which is an entirely narcissistic vanity piece that panders to the cheap seats. There’s scant ingenuity here, exceptionally little genuine heart, and a weird imbalance of tone and thematics that lurches from zany, slapstick comedy to cheesy, violin-playing emotional melodrama.
Steve Carell’s made his career on the comedy film circuit ever since his breakout performance in Bruce Almighty, as the God-borne tourettes-afflicted Evan Baxter. He’s an actor I’ve a bit of time for, largely built on his dramatic work in films like Crazy Stupid Love and Dan In Real Life (among others), yet as a comedian I find him a little bit hit-and-miss. Films like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, in which Carell ensembles with Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi and the always great Alan Arkin, are designed to capitalize on Carell’s “awkward” humorist stylings, the kind I generally hate, and it’s little wonder that I didn’t find this film all that easy and pleasant to watch. Whether it’s a good film will depend on your tolerance for Carell’s humor; it’s well made in terms of production value, the cast do well with limited material, and the film certainly looks the goods, but a naff story, and character we can’t help but be annoyed by, derail any potential the magically-themed narrative might have enjoyed.
Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: In 1982, young Albert is harassed by bullies. His mother gives him a special magic trick set by veteran magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) as his birthday present. He studies the instructional video and begins to practice some tricks, attracting the attention of a classmate, Anthony. They practice together and eventually become professional magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), earning them success and an ongoing headlining act at the Bally’s Hotel in Las Vegas. However, after ten years of performing the same tricks over and over again, Anton is fed up with Burt’s ego, which has already cost them previous female assistants, all called “Nicole” in the act. In a rush, Burt enlists production assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) as the new Nicole. Burt and Anton encounter up-and-coming street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) performing a unique yet horrifying card trick for his TV magic show, Brain Rapist. Audience numbers soon dwindle at Burt and Anton’s show, upsetting Bally’s owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). Taking a cue from Gray’s endurance-based stunts, Anton suggests that he and Burt try a similar tack—locking themselves in a plastic cage called the Hot Box hung above ground. Overconfident, Burt does not prepare for the stunt and almost instantly falls into a panic, causing the stunt to fail and injuring Anton. Anton angrily ends his partnership with Burt, and Jane also quits. Burt refuses to change his act, staging his two-man show alone to disastrous results. Munny shuts down the production and Burt, having squandered his earnings over the years, is left broke. Despondent, Burt tries to find work and is eventually hired as an entertainer at an assisted-living facility catering to former Vegas entertainers. There he meets Holloway, who retired several years before because he found that he was no longer happy performing. Holloway counsels Burt about magic, inspiring him to remember the initial wonder that led him to become a magician. Burt is shocked to see Jane—herself an aspiring magician—working for Gray. Appalled by Gray’s style, Holloway and Burt polish their own tricks. Together with Jane, Burt and Anton decide to take on Grey in winning a competition to be the headline act at Munny’s new casino, the Doug.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a fairly benign, almost generic central premise – two magicians working together have grown to hate each other, yet must reforge their friendship when a usurper threatens to steal their careers away. Wonderstone is the generic “pompous ass” who must be taught a “valuable life lesson”, and the film trots it all out as if it’s revolutionizing the genre. It’s a tried and true formula that’s been done with other genre films, the kind of story from which large amounts of comedies are derived, usually to ambivalent success. Burt Wonderstone’s story is a rote as it gets, including the ubiquitous establishment manager wanting to make money, the starry eyed (yet realistic) female associate, the Ben Stiller-esque sneering villain (here played by a Jim Carrey-esque sneering Jim Carrey) and, of course, a couple of second-stringers whose main role it is is to provide context and asymmetrical commentary on the events of the film (usually star cameos fit in here); indeed, as many cliches and comedy pastiche examples you can think of, they are here in this film.
Burt Wonderstone’s generic story transitions early between a brilliantly effective opening flashback to Burt’s youth and his formative friendship with Anthony (later Anton), and the more repugnant Burt of the “present day” variety, all narcissism and vanity and exuding a loathing for emotional connections and actual feelings. The film begins to flounder early, with the screechingly shallow and flakey “magic show” the pair put on at Bally’s just cringe-inducing to watch. The film does set up Burt’s selfish character, although it’s to the point where we just know how it’ll all end. Every beat of this film feels so has-been, so fatally predestined, the film unravels as fast as it begins, leaving little for the cast to do but mug mercilessly for the camera and offer Steve Carell only the barest thespian backup. Poor Steve Buscemi must be sick of playing these kind dithery characters. Alan Arkin brings his usual snappy, wry humor to the part of a retired magician, Rance Halloway, and lifts the latter third from potential disaster into mild amusement.
Steve Carell does his usual schtick as Wonderstone, a schizophrenic character who feels like he’s on the verge of an outbreak of tourettes; when Carell needs to empathize or provide dramatic weight to his arc, he splinters his character with ineptitude and something approaching sorrow. It’s a bizarre mix, that more often works for cheap laughs, but lacks sincerity. Olivia Wilde’s Jane is a redundant character included simply to provide a relatively improbable romance with Burt himself; the screenplay tries to get her to make the audience (that’s us) feel something less than obnoxious smarm for Burt, and in some respects it probably works, although the cynic in me wishes her part had been better developed. Jim Carrey’s gurning at camera, as he plays the antisocial street magician, Steve Grey, lacks either menace or fun, reaching a middle-ground from which he’s simply adequate, and not exceptional. If he’s as close to a villain as this film gets, the film’s better off without one. The late James Gandolfini appears as the owner of the Bally’s Hotel, and whores his mobster caricature schtick until the very end. It’s a thankless, and largely humorless, effort from an actor who had done better.
Don Scardino’s approach to Burt Wonderstone is not to let the audience think about things too much – probably like a real magic show, right? – and the lack of depth to any of the characters robs the story of heart: it’s just an annoying dick of a man learning not to be a dick any more (and get the girl too – spoiler!), a trajectory we’ve seen all too often, and done better. There’s plenty of light laughs here (Arkin’s Rance is the highlight, by far) and several scenes of largely scattergun awkwardness (Burt and Anton’s eventual reunion towards the latter third of the film, stands out) provide momentary relief from the otherwise tepid screenplay. Yes, it’s a film where the key word is “predictability”, meaning that if you’ve seen one “rebounding from potential life-altering change of heart” story, you’ve seen this one. Frankly, it’s a bit of a bore.