[29 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He’s managed one of the most impossible transformations of the last few years. He’s gone from an insular FoA - “Friend of Apatow” - to a go-to geek for most mainstream comedies. This year alone, he topped the box office with his turn as the TSA nerd who was “out of the league” of pretty professional event planner and then switched genres to play the optimistic voice of young Viking learning “how to train” his dragon. He then starred in the indie effort The Trotsky, and then attempted another Disney-fied franchise with his role as the live action sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s been an unusual climb for 28-year-old Jay Baruchel, a career path for the Canadian up and comer that’s part luck, part planning, and a great deal of amiable, acknowledged talent.
Prior to his breakout role as part of Seth Rogen’s stoner rat pack in Knocked Up, Baruchel was a considered bit player, a part of such noted efforts as Million Dollar Baby, Almost Famous, and The Rules of Attraction. He was a regular on several TV shows, including My Hometown and Popular Mechanics for Kids. But it was his work with Mr. 40 Year Old Virgin on the underappreciated Undeclared that endeared him into Apatow’s Army, a position he would fulfill with true dork delight. Since then, Baruchel has played foil to Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and romantic rival to Michael Cera in the Generation-Y RomCom Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. From all accounts, 2010 was to be his year, topped off by a chance to help Producer Jerry Bruckheimer guide yet another House of Mouse property to Black Pearl-esque revenues.
Of course, the failure of the film all but guaranteed that we won’t be experiencing the further adventures of this particular wizard’s trainee. Indeed, stretching a nine minute segment from the beloved Fantasia into a 90 minute combination of Blackbeard’s Ghost (sans a discernible Dean Jones) and your basic blockbuster may have seemed like a surefire idea. Of course, no one was probably counting on frequent paycheck casher Nicolas Cage as the main magician, or that the man behind the camera would be the same dull director responsible for such nominal fare as Cool Running, 3 Ninjas, and the overblown National Treasure films. For his part, Baruchel fought mightily to showcase his abilities, but when you’re used to being an R-rated cut up without many contextual commandments to hold you back, playing down to the tween demo is awfully hard to do.
As a result, you can see the actor and the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice struggling, almost from the very beginning. Instead of playing things out in a moment of dramatic excess, the picked over screenplay provides an ominous voice over with the basics of the premise. Cage, and costars Alfred Molina, and Monica Bellucci do their magic mime pantomime, bolts of energy are exchanged, and then the ultimate creative short cut - Alice Krige - shows up to personify evil, and suddenly it’s the year 2000. We get a dopey grade school story of how Dave meets Balthazar for the first time, a reason for the following “10 Years Later” title card, and the standard jokes about peeing one’s pants and being too dweeby to get girls. By the time any real prestidigitation takes place, we long since forgotten why our human hero is so important to the cause.
Our slapdash story does indeed start with Cage’s Balthazar Blake, apprentice to King Arthur’s main wizard. Along with two other noble underlings, Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina), they are preparing to protect the 740 A.D. world from the evil machinations of main magic rival Morgana (Krige). When Merlin is betrayed and killed, he gives Balthazar his prized dragon ring and commands that he wander the ages looking for his successor, otherwise known as the “Prime Merlinium”. Fast forward to 2010 and spastic physics student Dave Stutler (Baruchel) apparently fits the bill. Reluctant at first, he soon learns that the fate of all mankind rests with his prophesized powers. Balthazar intends to train him in the ways of sorcery. But when Horvath returns to revive Morgana, it will take more than enchantment to save the day.
Truth be told, it takes almost 40 minutes. That’s when Cage calms down enough to try and bring some gravitas to the proceedings. The rest of the time, he’s playing supernatural stand-up comic. If running gags about pointy old man shoes, flaccid plasma balls, and Tesla coils aren’t enough to have you wincing, the epilepsy-lite performance from Baruchel practically rewrites the rulebook on discomfort. It’s not that he’s bad - in fact, his work is so overloaded with anxiety and self-doubt, his Dave is like a walking excuse for bullying. And then there is the romantic angle. We can buy the whole Mensa vs. magic slant, but the instant connection that Teresa Palmer’s college DJ Becky feels for this boy demands way too much disbelief suspension. The steel eagle, the matryoshka prison, and the last act promise of something called “The Rising” (Bruce Springsteen should sue) are a lot more credible than Dave’s chemistry with this gullible gal pal.
It’s as if The Sorcerer’s Apprentice came up with its ideas after sifting through the last three decades of the Summer movie experience. Sadly, it seems to have only picked out the mediocre elements to emulate. The other actors all underachieve, the premise quickly loses its potency, and Turteltaub continues to argue for his irrelevancy as a major league moviemaker. Just because his previous collaborations with Cage and Bruckheimer yielded sizeable commercial returns doesn’t mean he has the Spielberg touch. He’s barely a Chris Columbus. As a matter of fact, he more closely copies the fatally freefalling tendencies of a M Night Shyalaman. If Mr. Sixth Sense and Shawn Levy had a baby, Turteltaub would be said journeyman offspring. What he lacks in vision, he more than makes up for in direct demographic pandering.
With humor that’s beyond obvious, plot mechanics that make the most rigid robotics seem like ballet, and no real center to root for, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice becomes a tired example of celluloid carnival barking. It’s all promise and anticipation with none of the payoff. Instead of an epic adventure told in an equally ambitious style, it’s all focus group safety and preprogrammed preposterousness. Perhaps buried somewhere inside this script by committee is a decent idea that could then be professionally fleshed out into an actual film - and no, no amount of mop and broom live action referencing can justify this junk (besides, the homage is fairly mediocre at that). Of course, there would also have to be actors able to sell the stuff. The only things Cage and company auction off here is their credibility.
Luckily, Baruchel appears poised to survive. His past successes almost guarantee it. Besides, he’s a gifted young chameleon who can turn off the pocket protector aspects of his personality to be genuine, real, and very, very identifiable. Unlike other actors who’ve specialized in playing the outcast, he has enough recognizability beyond the book learning to withstand such scrutiny. After all, while still influenced by and involved in their sphere of Funny People influence, Baruchel stands as his own enterprise. Here’s believing that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a below average anomaly…not the stilted shape of things to come.