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Movie Review: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”

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“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” follows in the footsteps of a long lineage of Saturday Night Live skits that have been stretched into full-length feature films.

From “A Night at The Roxbury” to “MacGruber”to

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone movie poster

“… I wanna reach out and grab ya!”

“Coneheads” and “It’s Pat,” the mixture of story and character study… Excuse me, what?

No way… seriously… it was never on SNL? Not even once? I could’ve sworn it was. I am shocked and amazed. I feel like I’ve been fooled or tricked somehow.

And this, my fellow movie lovers, is called a segue – tada!

Speaking of tricks (segue!), the big trick that this film, as well as all of the others I just mentioned, tries to pull off is taking that fleeting moment of humor and transforming it into 90-plus minutes of meaningful character development and story progression.

This particular film features the glitzy world of Las Vegas magic shows and the magicians that proudly keep the art of pulling rabbits out of hats alive and well. The problem with the film is that the script, which most likely started out as a funny idea between screenwriters John Francis Daley (of Freaks and Geeks fame) and Jonathan M. Goldstein, suffers a familiar fate and ends up becoming one endless joke which goes on too long.

There’s only so many times you can watch Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi  prance around on stage in tight velvet pantsuits and fake mullet wigs while “Abracadabra” by The Steve Miller Band plays in the background (over and over again) and still find it funny – if you found it funny the first time, that is.

The movie starts out as so many comedies these days do  – with a flashback showing the character at a young, formative age (also see “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Ted,” etc.) In this particular case, we are shown a young Burt being chased by neighborhood bullies and eventually being forced to eat a piece of bark off a tree. We then follow a distraught Burt inside his house, where he finds a letter from his single, multiple-job mother. “Happy Birthday,” the letter reads, “I got you a present and your favorite kind of cake – it’s over there on the counter.”

The camera then pans over to the countertop and unveils an unopened box of birthday cake mix – which is actually quite a funny sight gag that I was unprepared for. Burt reads on, “You’ll need these ingredients to make it: flour, butter, eggs – well, actually, we’re out of eggs you’ll have to go to the store to get them…”

You get the point, Burt is one lonely child. However, his mother did manage to get him a birthday gift that would change Burt’s life forever – a Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) Magic Set. Burt is immediately fascinated and obsessed with the tricks in the set -which includes everything from “disappearing flowers” to a top hat to “the ring trick” – and practices day and night. Eventually his magic tricks are noticed by young Anton, who also is a picked-on and misunderstood child, and they instantly form a “magical friendship” (this pun is from the movie, I didn’t make it up myself) with one another – a friendship that lasts for the next two decades.

I hate to say it, but these opening scenes are pretty much the only backstory that is unearthed regarding any character in the film. So, if any of you like your cinematic experience to be of the character-driven variety, you can stop watching now.

Twenty years later, the duo are now known as Burt Wonderstone (played by a very stale and underwhelming Carell) and Anton Marvelton (played by an underused Buscemi, who seems to be channeling his inner Donny from “The Big Lebowski”) and are headlining Las Vegas in their “Magical Friendship” show. Oh, did I mention the show is performed in The Burt and Anton Magic Theater? Basically, the two have hit it big. However, there is a price for their fame. Isn’t there always, though?

It seems as if Burt has let success go to his head and is now a womanizing, chauvinistic, self-absorbed a-hole. We’re not sure why he has become this way, but that’s not really that important now – is it? What is important is the magic. Oh, the magic.

So…. Much…. Magic.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that I spent, at least, a third of the film watching people perform magic tricks. I’m not going to be a complete hater, a number of the routines were funny- at first. Some of the tricks were even charming and whimsical. Then they just got boring. The film dragged quite a bit towards the end of the first act. However, a welcome appearance by James Gandolfini (I still can’t believe he doesn’t talk like Tony Soprano in real life) as casino magnate Doug Munny almost single-handedly saved the day.

The problem was that I just didn’t buy Steve Carell in the guise of “Skeev Carell,” if you catch my drift. He is absolutely not believable as the bad guy. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the small segments of “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” when he was trying to play the role of the suave, cool, ladies man. Ridiculous, right? It just didn’t work in those films. In fact, those scenes were meant to make him look silly and out-of-place in that a-hole role. So, why these filmmakers thought it would work here is beyond me.

The real storyline dilemma lies within the “what goes up, must come down” rule – meaning Burt’s character must have his day of redemption to those he has wronged. Of course, this comes after he hits rock bottom. This occurs courtesy of a business and friendship breakup with partner Anton, which ultimately causes the termination of his magic act at Doug’s casino. It doesn’t get any more cliché than this plot device and I definitely could have done without it, but I guess you need some character arches between the hocus pocus.

Jim Carrey as Steve Gray

“Everybody, watch as I steal this movie right out from under Steve Carell’s nose. It’s okay, I owe him for doing it to me during “Bruce Almighty.”

 

One character that does work is the street magician Steve Gray (played brilliantly by habitual scene-stealer Jim Carrey), who is apparently a hybrid of Criss Angel and David Blaine – only about a thousand times more extreme. Carrey’s performance saves the film from the brinks of boredom, as his character’s so-called “magic tricks” (he calls his cable special “Brain Rapist,” by the way) go from diabolical to downright death-defying. One of the best scenes of the movie involves Burt and Steve Gray going trick-for-trick at Doug Munny’s ten-year-old son’s birthday party.

Just a quick disclaimer: Although it’s not at an “Evil Dead”  remake level of gore, squeamish people might want to avert their eyes during a few of the Steve Gray scenes, especially the one involving a new variation on the “Is this your card?” trick.

Oh wait, I almost forgot. Olivia Wilde is in this movie, too. Therein lies

Olivia Wilde as Jane

Literally, this picture marks the first time a bunny has not been the cutest part of a picture.

another drawback. Although she is one of the most gorgeous women on the planet of Earth, her performance has the same characteristics of a disappearing act – there’s just no substance to it. In fact, most of the characters in the film don’t have any substance to them. I know, I know. “Lighten up dude,” you say, “it’s a comedy. What do you want from it?”

I don’t know – maybe a little bit of character motivation.

That brings me to my biggest gripe. How on Earth can you create such an unforgettable character as Steve Gray and then, on top of that, get a comic genius like Jim Carrey to play him and not create a film around THIS character? I would’ve liked to see “The Extreme Steve Gray” (“Steve Gray: Brain Rapist” is just way too controversial-sounding) much more than this film. Just sayin’ is all.

If you want the honest truth, even after all of my spewed venom and critical piledrivers, I actually liked this film for what it was. I have to come to grips with the fact that if a movie makes you laugh out loud for over a good hour, it has to be considered entertaining. Then, I guess what this film was – although, not for the entire 90 minutes – was entertaining.

Most of Burt and Anton’s tricks and show routines were entertaining. All of Steve Gray’s scenes were more than entertaining. A number of the sight gags are funny – watch out for one involving an imploding Vegas casino – and entertaining. The cameos and supporting roles involve entertaining actors (although, I could’ve done without a painfully unfunny Jay Mohr) – especially Arkin, who, with his capped teeth and pencil-thin ‘stache, is almost as big of a scene burglar as Carrey was.

Quick side note” The MOST entertaining scene takes place right before the credits roll, but after the film’s title flashes on the screen – so don’t leave the theater until you see it.

Sometimes, I get caught up in focusing on what’s wrong with a movie instead of what works. What a jerk I’ve been. It turns out that “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” made me happy all along and I was too busy pointing out its flaws to notice. I hope I can be forgiven and maybe when it comes out on Blu-Ray I can give it another shot – just me and the movie, no big crowds, together. It sounds like a grand tale of redemption. Wait a tick, maybe I can turn it into a movie script. Well, hold on, maybe I should try it out as a short skit before trying to stretch it out into 90 minutes.

Maybe I can pitch it to Saturday Night Live?

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  • JP

    I agree with the last quarter of the review, but I truly enjoyed the entire film from the start. I don’t think Carell could have played the “a-hole’ role any better. Jim Carrey was used perfectly, stealing his scenes without running away with the movie. This is the perfect role for him to use to segue into the next phase of his career. Just enough crazy behind the eyes without his being given too much rope. I’m really looking forward to seeing him in “Loomis Fargo”. Buscemi never disappoints, although I wasn’t crazy his “milquetoastiness”.

    Olivia Wilde was hot and serviceable. Honestly, I thought she overachieved in a role that probably didn’t amount to much on paper.

    Alan Arkin. I cannot do him justice. So I’ll leave it at that.

    The finale, albeit contrived, is pulled off masterfully. Very well played. It’s a shame they’d never be able to pull it off multiple times, as it’s assumed it would be the closer every night.

    My only complaint was the cameo of a certain illusionist whom I will not name but happened to be a consultant on the film. I would have much preferred an interaction with a certain comedy-illusionary duo. As complaints go, it’s minor.