Film Review – The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
We are still in March. You know how we can tell where we are in the year, aside from looking at a calendar or asking someone else or looking outside at the still-mediocre weather? Just by looking at the current movie listings. We are in the post-Oscar season, pre-summer blockbuster doldrums of the first few months of 2013. This is when studios release mostly forgettable films they don’t have much confidence in that are destined to sit on your future Netflix queue as “oh, I mean to get around to watching that” fare. Yes, yes, every once in a while there is some exception that busts this trend. 300 was a surprise blockbuster early in the year it came out. And in 2012 we had The Grey, which was better than anyone expected. But mostly, late winter is the time for movies you’ll have a vague recollection of having seen once.
The latest example of this is the new comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The movie starts in 1982, when a young, friendless Burt is longing for people to like him. His mother gives him a magic kit for his birthday along with an instructional video hosted by his newfound idol Rance Holloway, played by the always watchable Alan Arkin. Burt shows his new tricks to his schoolmate Anton, who is immediately taken by them, and a lifelong friendship begins. Cut to many years later, and the adult Burt and Anton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, respectively) headline their own successful act in Las Vegas, a la Siegfried and Roy. But the times are changing for the duo. Jim Carrey as Steve Gray is a roaring parody of a Criss Angel style magician who performs “dangerous” self-maiming illusions for his TV show “Brain Rape.” This new magic is getting all the attention, overshadowing the more glitzy traditional Vegas act. Burt and Anton try to do their own stunt, but things fall apart, resulting in a friendship-ending fight and financial ruin.
If you’ve seen the commercials for this movie, you know what you’re in for. The entire conceit of Burt Wonderstone is making fun of the overly serious, laughably theatrical world of magicians. Onstage, Burt runs through a standard cheesy magician’s patter when introducing his hacky tricks. The humor with him is how bored he is after having done the same act for over a dozen years. However, instead of kind of rooting for Burt, he comes off as more of just a bored jerk. Carell has been fabulous many times before in his stints on The Daily Show and The Office, awkwardly working through uncomfortable humor. And he has been equally great in vehicles like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, playing someone who is overly earnest despite the absurdity around him. But his Burt feels kind of flat. Carell plays him as a callous jerk early on, but when he gets his comeuppance and goes through his obligatory softening, it’s unconvincing. Does anyone out there remember anything about that lukewarm Get Smart remake Carell was in? I defy you to find anyone who’s watched Evan Almighty more than once. This movie will most likely fall somewhere in that area of Carell’s canon.
Burt Wonderstone features a fine cast. Steve Buscemi is always a welcome sight. But despite one admittedly funny scene where he’s handing magic kits out to starving third world children, his character feels underwritten. Olivia Wilde as the obligatory love interest isn’t given much to do. James Gandolfini as a Steve Wynn type mogul is fine. The true standout, though, is Jim Carrey. The usual over-the-top mugging he engages in, which can be annoying at times, perfectly suits his “daring” street magician. The biggest laughs come from Carrey hammering a nail with his forehead or performing “the human piñata.” (And considering he spends most of his screen time with his shirt off, I have to admit that dude’s still keeping himself in great shape).
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn’t without laughs. It’s agreeably funny. But it’s not particularly edgy or memorable. Jim Carrey really elevates his scenes. But aside from that, you’ll find yourself in six months watching this streaming online somewhere and saying “That was okay, I guess.”
Final Grade: C+