The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a magic trick itself, superficial from the outside but with way more up its sleeve than you’d expect. A Las Vegas film about dueling magicians seems like something out of the latter-day Will Ferrell playbook, but it’s not quite. It is a traditional comedy, meaning there are jokes, setups to jokes, punchlines. The story is barely there but because each of the characters has their own brand of humor the film manages to set a delightful pace that is rarely subdued.
The promise starts off immediately with young Burt Wonderstone (Mason Cook). He is bullied and attacked, a whimpering latchkey kid who must bake himself his own birthday cake. He opens his absent mother’s present to find a magic kit endorsed by Vegas magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). He promises young Burt that learning how to do magic will make people love him – because people love magic. It’s absolutely saccharine, but it’s never disingenuous. Child actor Mason Cook sells the wonder of the magic and rather than getting laughs from watching a little loser get beat up, the film goes out of its way to give the kid a personality and hope. Soon he and his young friend Anton Marvelton are learning how to do magic together, which eventually leads to the duo’s successful career in Las Vegas.
In the present day, their act is ten years old and Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) is vapid and bored. He takes everything for granted, his room service, his co-workers, even his magic. When a rival street magician (Jim Carrey) starts making waves on the strip, the outdated Wonderstone is tossed out into the world to fend for himself. After breaking up with his longtime friend (Steve Buscemi), he finally finds employment at a retirement center where he meets his childhood idol, Rance Holloway. The man teaches him how to put the magic back in his magic.
I’m sure that description does not sound like stirring material but Wonderstone actually ends up making a valid point about the difference between spectacle and magic, a nice little message snuggled under the jokes. As for the funny, where does that come in?
The trailer for the film was pretty heavy on the gags, Jim Carrey’s street magic vs. Carrell’s egotism, but what this film has is a great cast of characters, each of whom gets to be funny in a different way. The delightful Olivia Wilde plays Carrell’s assistant Jane who dreams of being a magician herself and alternately idolizes and loathes Wonderstone. Wilde manages to find something to do with each of her lines, deadpanning Carrell left and right. Buscemi meanwhile is the dogged nice guy with a vengeance, never outshining his friend and absolutely thrilled about it. James Gandolfini plays Doug Munny, casino owner and Carrell’s boss, and he’s about as unapologetic an asshole as humanly possible. And then there’s Carrey, who plays Steve Gray (think David Blaine meets Criss Angel meets Fire Marshall Bill) and he smashes every scene he’s in (sometimes literally). His extreme magic antics are juxtaposed with the old school sensibilities of Arkin and Carrell with increasingly tortuous results.
With this cast of comedians everything seems to be in Wonderstone’s favor, with just one little hitch. Wonderstone, as played by Carrell, is awful.
Steve Carrell is a funny actor, yet he plays Wonderstone with such bored detachment that he ends up as a black hole in the center of the joy. What’s worse, the film is fairly grounded in its absurdity but Wonderstone is given such an exaggerated sense of entitlement that his obliviousness about such things as not having room service outside of his hotel suite just doesn’t make sense. He is appalling to women and seems to have no idea how to behave like a real human being. This sort of character is the kind Will Ferrell excels at, making the inhuman comedic. But Carrell’s Wonderstone is so uninvolved with everything that his detachment isn’t funny and the role is instantly stale. The actor does much better work in the latter half of the film after he rediscovers his wonder. However, how he transforms himself from a caricature to a character in so short a time is baffling. It is the film’s only flaw that its protagonist is so inadequate.
The rest of the cast do a fairly good job of making the rest of the jokes work. Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde are the film’s strongest points, with Carrey providing an insidious foil and Wilde a bonafide sidekick. It’s a solid comedy that didn’t perform too well at the box office, and that’s too bad. It’s a magic act worth believing in.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
Directed by Don Scardino
New Line Cinema
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