The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 15 Mar 2013 (General release); 2013)
If you ever needed proof that one thing, one unexceptional and rather mediocre thing can ruin an otherwise promising film, look no further than The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. No, it’s not fledgling novice feature filmmaker Don Scardino. No, it’s not the miscast Steve Buscemi or the left with nothing to do eye candy Olivia Wilde. It’s not even a barely there Jim Carrey taking the term “over the top” to new levels via his personification and interpretation of the entire Chris Angel/ David Blaine school of Jackass ‘magic’. In fact, the entire high profile prestidigitation angle is often engaging and ripe for satiric exploration.
No, the one bad apple in this otherwise promising comedy is its star, Steve Carell. Frequently very funny and winning when working within a worthwhile conceit (see his definitive dork in Dinner with Schmucks) he is horrible here. At first, his character is such a bore, such an outrageously egotistical and sexist swine that no amount of personal comeuppance can save him. Then, the movie takes pains to put him through a pointless riches to rags retaliation that does little except give room for Alan Arkin to prove how true film funny business is handled. By the end, we don’t care if Burt Wonderstone wins the day, gets the girls, or reestablishes his career credentials. We just want Carell and his calculated creep gone.
It’s not all bad at the beginning. When we first meet a very young Burt, he is the target of every bully in school. Teaming up with his future lifelong pal Anton, he takes a shine to magic. Eventually, Burt and his buddy become the biggest thing on the Las Vegas strip, making resort owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) very happy. After ten years, however, the show becomes sour, and Anton (Buscemi) takes off to do charity work. Burt is alone for the first time, and to make matters worse, there is a media sensation rival (Carrey) bucking for his spotlight. When Munny creates a competition to see who will headline his new casino, it looks like our hero is out of the running. But with the help of a former star (Arkin) and a saucy female wannabe (Wilde), he might just be ready for a comeback—and a change of heart.
If ever a player in a supposedly laugh filled film needed a beatdown, it would be Burt Wonderstone. Clearly not understanding the nature of his fame, this bumbling blowhard is a couple of card tricks away from a kid’s party (where he eventually ends up). He’s crass, unappealing, and above all, unable to keep our attention. He’s the kind of tool you’d dismiss almost immediately had not an entire cinematic narrative been built around him. Try as he might, Carell can’t make this lout loveable. He’s too insular, too tirelessly self involved to resonate beyond the small sphere of influence he is working in. Had the movie projected every participant in such a horrid light, we might have been satisfied. But the rest of the cast appears to be broadcasting on a different wavelength, one that lets the audience enjoy their often crude cut-ups. This makes Wonderstone, and Carell, entertainment personas non grata.
Just take Carrey, for example. He’s not the star. He’s changed his looks almost completely. He’s channeling a similarly slimy headline seeking screwball, and yet we can’t get enough of him. It’s all about tone, and approach. Carrey knows his character is supposed to be the butt of many jokes. Just watch as several of the onscreen extras cringe and vomit over his often hysterical histrionics. Steve Gray is a comment, a critical denunciation of everything that is (supposedly) wrong with modern magic. That bystanders can’t get enough of his Steve-O silliness is icing on the acting cake. But Wonderstone gets none of this. He is viewed through the prism of popularity that turns his entire personality into something akin to an advanced a-hole. He acts like someone who is constantly being belittled when he’s the hottest act in town.
Or what of Arkin, playing the retired magician who inspired Burt in the first place? Well, he wins because he understands timing and the tenets of comedic characterization. If he’s supposed to be an old, bitter, curse-word dropping coot, then that’s exactly what the actor delivers. No winks to the audience. No attempt to lessen the impact. With Carell, you get the impression that he is constantly trying to make our title tyrant nice, that even while he’s macking on every woman he sees and derides his pathetic loser partner, he’s a good soul inside. Why? Why do this? Arkin is never seen as anything other than angry and aged. The acceptance comes from his acknowledgement of same. Burt is nothing more than a cipher, sucking the fun out of the film like a burlesque black hole.
There are other problems here as well. The opening is overly sentimental and pat. Ms. Wilde is just wasted, her story arc started and then never, ever brought to fruition. Buscemi gets a few laughs, but he looks so much more haggard than his castmates (FYI - he is only five years older than Carell) and Gandolfini is a running gag (he can’t remember much about his beloved young son) that is two or three punchlines away from being an irritant. Then there is Scardino. He’s been immersed in TV for too long, treating every scene like he’s prepping for a commercial break. There’s no invention here, no real payoff. Burt gets his comeuppance and comes around. Cue music.
Had it the balls to be something more than a slight, somewhat surreal example of the genre, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone might have worked. Crowds may be pleased with what they see, but this passable piffle is nothing more than a kid with a set of TV magic cards. Everything may appear to come up aces, but the trick - and this particular trickster - are hoary old news.