Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

For F*** Magazine


Director: Don Scardino
Cast: Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 100 mins
Opens: 14 March 2013
Rating: PG13 (Some Drug References and Coarse Language)

There is much drama to be mined from the world of magic. There’s a sort of romanticism, danger and mystique associated with the heyday of such performers as Houdini, a world where reality and make-believe dangerously collide, a world where smoke can suffocate and mirrors can shatter…but let’s face it, there’s just as much, if not even more, comedy in there too.

Las Vegas stage magicians have long been associated with cheesy theatrics, ridiculous costumes, unruly big cats and even unrulier bad hair. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) are a pair of magicians in that grand tradition, best friends since their mutual love of magic brought them together as kids. However, a tiresome routine, waning ticket sales and Wonderstone’s increasing self-absorption put a strain on their working and personal relationship.

On top of that, new magic sensation Steve Gray (Carrey), a self-styled street illusionist renowned for his wince-inducing, “extreme” stunts, has poised himself as competition for a residence at a new hotel. After falling out of a glass box and from grace, Burt is forced to eat his humble pie working in a retirement community, where he meets his idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), a curmudgeon whose magician days are far behind him. However, perhaps there’s a spark to ignite yet, as Wonderstone strives to recapture his glory days and win the affection of Jane (Wilde), a beautiful assistant and aspiring magician he once spurned.

We’ll come right out and say it – The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is pretty much formula from start to finish. There’s the hero whose early success has gotten to his head and who has lost his drive, the loyal best friend whom he abandons, the ageing mentor whose wisdom has yet to run out, the despicable professional rival, and of course the girl who motivates him to get his groove back.

We’ve seen it hundreds and hundreds of times and yet, the film is somehow able to rise just above the clichés from which it is constructed. There isn’t very much to the characters beyond Burt’s requisite “hero’s journey”, and many of them are not very much more than one-note caricatures – the hotel/casino tycoon played by James Gandolfini is actually named “Munny”!  Still, the cast musters enough charm to get us to actually enjoy this familiar ride.

Decked out in low-cut, bejewelled jumpsuits and sporting the most vivid spray tan this side of the Jersey Shore, Carell is, as usual, just very fun to watch. However, it is a little more difficult to buy him as the sort of guy who’d actually have groupies. The film also showcases Steve Buscemi at his least creepy and most sympathetic, and he and Carell do make a decent team. As the subversive, manic illusionist who relies more on gross-out, shocking feats than actual magic, Jim Carrey is clearly having the time of his life, and it is the craziest he’s been in a movie in a while. Olivia Wilde and Alan Arkin don’t do all that much in their supporting roles, but Wilde’s lower-key performance is a good counterpoint to the broad comedy and Arkin being the actor that he is, is effortlessly hilarious and threatens to steal the show each time he appears.

As a satire of the Las Vegas stage magic scene, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not particularly insightful or biting, and its parody of street magicians who trade on shock factor is around ten years too late. However, there are a good number of laughs to be had and some pretty inspired gags. For example, Steve Gray’s show is named “Brain Rapist”, a side-splitting riff on “Mindfreak”, and magician David Copperfield’s cameo as himself is something of a treat. The closest the film gets to being offensive is a vignette in which Anton Marvelton visits a poor village in Cambodia, only to find that the villagers aren’t interested in magic kits and are much more in need of food and clean water – but that bit is indeed funny.

The movie’s high-energy first half is certainly its better one, and the climactic trick is both ethically and logistically dubious – but director Don Scardino ultimately succeeds in serving up silly, old-fashioned fun. Sure, the story mechanics are well-worn, but if done proficiently enough, there’s still magic to be found in even the oldest of tricks.

SUMMARY: More like a card trick than making the Statue of Liberty vanish, but it coasts by with the help of a game, charming cast and a healthy number of laugh-inducing moments.

RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong


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