Reviews

The Magic Is Lost in 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'

Don't let the comedic cast fool you -- there's nothing funny about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Director: Don Scardino
Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini
Length: 100 minutes
Studio: New Line Cinema, Benderspink, Carousel Productions
Year: 2013
Distributor: Warner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident, and language
Release date: 2013-06-25

Movie magic and magicians usually don’t get along. Despite a shared love of illusion, grandeur, and spectacle, there are few movies that make the magician’s profession out to be much more than a joke. With notable exceptions (The Prestige, for one), this mini-movie genre mismanages its appeal time and time again. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may be the worst example of that sad fact yet.

Steve Carell plays the titular Wonderstone, a selfish, bored magician who was once caring and excited. You see, when little Burt was just a youth, he was constantly bullied by some neighborhood kids. We learn through some blunt and grating exposition that he doesn’t have any friends. Even worse, it’s his birthday and all he got was a punch on the shoulder. That is, until he arrives home to an empty house, an unbaked cake, and one big box and bow. Inside is a magic kit with an instructional video from the diegetically famous magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). In it, he gives Burt some questionable advice that changes his life forever.

The advice, though, wasn’t really advice. Rance says in the video, “Everyone loves a magician.” Obviously, that’s not true, but little Burt doesn’t realize that. How could he? As a 12-year-old (ish), it’s excusable for the child to think making magic would also make him friends. What’s inexcusable is the filmmakers inability to understand the flaw in logic. Director Don Scardino and the four (four) screenwriters never take the time to wink at the audience, letting us know they know this is a silly setup. It’s an ineptitude that spreads throughout the entire film. What appears on the surface to be a solid foundation -- great cast, solid structuring, intriguing premise -- is actually a rotting frame that quickly collapses.

There are many problems with the film, not the least of which is it’s simply not funny. Carell seems as disinterested in the character as Burt is with his magic routing after decades in Vegas. Alan Arkin provides a few moments of levity, but nothing memorable. Jim Carrey’s turn feels like a caricature of his former self, with his patented rubber face morphing again and again into similar poses that have been outdated since 1997. None are shameful, and none should be embarrassed. They simply got stuck with a lackluster director and shoddy script, and couldn’t improvise their way out of either.

The most egregious error of the far from Incredible Burt Wonderstone is its complete misunderstanding of what makes magicians alluring in the first place. Everyone remembers the first time they saw a magic trick. Some were confused and wanted to know how it was done. Others were left in awe, believing however briefly that the impossible was, in fact, possible. Yet none of that is achieved in Burt Wonderstone. Nothing even resembling those feelings come up during the 100 minutes of mundane meandering. There’s more magic in Magic Mike than this.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone filmmakers chose to show us how the tricks were done before they happened, or explain them post-trick as if they were speaking to a small child. Not only does that betray the magician’s code, but they do it without any flair or even basic understanding of a “big reveal.” No one likes being talked down to, but being insulted regarding a subject we’re not supposed to understand was particularly tough to hear.

The disc’s surprisingly solid special features do illuminate one bit of actual behind-the-scenes trickery. “Making Movie Magic with David Copperfield” walks the audience through an illusion the famous Vegas showman helped construct for the movie. It happens early in the film and creates a brief moment of curiosity, but the way it was cut together combined with the quick expository deconstruction immediately afterward kept a rather cool bit boring. It was interesting to see Copperfield shooting incognito cameos, even if all of them didn’t make the film’s final cut.

Also included are an eight minute faux behind-the-scenes doc with Carrey’s character, Steve Gray. It includes a few minutes of unseen footage and shows the actor’s commitment to the role, but still manages to be rather dull. The best and only worthwhile parts of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack are the deleted scenes, alternate takes, alternate ending, and gag reel. Though most of the recorded footage was extraneous and mercifully edited out, somehow it's the only evidence of the actors’ talents. It’s mainly seen in the gag reel, which has more humor in its first minute than the film does as a whole. Here, everyone appears looser and more likable, as if shedding the shackles of the script was all they needed to do to remember how to make people laugh.

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