/ the incredible burt wonderstone
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Just like the magical antics it both celebrates and derides, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a product of its times: a creaky comedy in an aging style, predictably patterned and pedestrianly performed. If we accept that we indeed live in a post-Anchorman world – one where improvisation takes precedence over crafted dialogue, character exists solely as an extension of a performer’s persona, and narrative serves as a bridge to link jazz flute solos – then Burt Wonderstone becomes even more esoteric. This is cookie-cutter filmmaking of the most juvenile variety, requiring no skill to assemble and even less to consume.
Steve Carell is the Siegfried to Steve Buscemi’s Roy, two inseparable childhood friends who find their relationship strained after thirty years of partnership. Their aging double act (‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton’) is underperforming, and at the instruction of their boss (James Gandolfini), must contemporize or die. Their efforts to reinvent themselves, however, are complicated by the emergence of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a daredevil street magician whose gruesome physical magic has the crowds going wild. And so with the help of their lovely assistant (Olivia Wilde) and a legendary retiree (Alan Arkin), the stage is set for a spectacular sorcerer show-down for the love and applause of the Las Vegas crowds.
Or rather, it isn’t. The story of dueling magicians is an evocative proposition, most memorably explored by Christopher Nolan in The Prestige. It’s the kind of story that has universal appeal, at once light and dark, magical and practical, artifice and and earnest. One wonders what Pixar would do with such a tantalizing premise, but in Burt Wonderstone, the reality is much more routine.
While taking shots at the glitzy, gaudy entertainment culture of Las Vegas (both past and present), the film mangles its stabs at satire by stating the obvious. Burt and Anton’s resemblance to the German cat-wrangling duo is cosmetically apparent, and their routine is resplendent in all the Copperfield laser-light show, but those figures have been cliché canon since the late 1980s – often spoofed, and better than here. Carrey’s ab-rippling, tattoo-chested mind freak is a dead ringer for Criss Angel (“Brain Rape”, lol), but Angel is already such a figure of fun (to the public and to himself), the joke goes without saying.
Compounding matters is the impeccable cast, who are all asked to bat well below their average. Buscemi, always a welcome presence, seems oddly out of place (and out of his comfort zone), while Wilde, previously demonstrating delicious comic chops in last years’ ‘Butter’ (look it up), is relegated to little more than love interest. Arkin steals most of the laughs with his cantankerous old hat maestro, leaving little for the film’s two heavy hitters (Carrey and Carell).
Carrey, in an increasingly rare comic turn, has either lost his edge in the intervening years of dramatic self-abasement, or was otherwise kept on a short leash. Resembling goth illusionist Criss Angel in both appearance and mannerism, his scenes (extended cameos, with only the slight flicker of meaningful interaction) rely mostly on gross-outs and setups that pale, both in theatricality and gut-churning awfulness, to the real deal. His performance is disappointingly uninspired, and projects an air of boredom from the usually manically energetic actor.
Carell, in a similar vein, fills the traditional Will Ferrell role awkwardly, his Burt a disagreeable jerk full of bluff and narcissistic bravado. His headstrong arrogance is hard to swallow from Carell, a gifted dramatic actor who could have wrought stronger laughs from playing up Burt’s vulnerabilities over his shallow vulgarities. It’s hard to root for such a sour dickhead, and the film asks us to do so for far too long before the inevitable turning point where, yes, Burt does indeed see the error of his ways and becomes a human being.
This transformation is taken with painful obviousness, which underlies most of the film’s problems: it’s tediously predictable. Its hard to laugh at jokes that telegraph their punch-lines, and even harder to care about characters who we know will triumph in the final reel. Whereas films like Anchorman kept us guessing with a disarming unpredictability, Burt Wonderstone plays like a screenwriter’s manual: point A to B to C to Climax.
It’s this rote plotting and character progression that gives the film a distinctly childlike feel, even if the humor errs on the adult side of the swear-jar. Were it not for a few choice words and some general grotesquery, the film could actually play to children, with its oddly skewed prologue, sentimental lesson-learning, and broad, uncomplicated humor. As it is, Burt Wonderstone is lacking in all the departments that matter: its heart is too left of center, and its funny bone is distinctly lacking.