I have to admit I was skeptical about this one. A star-studded cast, pratfalls galore, and sex jokes on Viagra, or so I took away from the trailer. The classic ingredients for a flop. Sure enough, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a star-studded cast, pratfalls galore, and sex jokes up the wazoo (ha, ha).
Directed by: Don Scardino
Written by: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis
Starring: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde
But it works. As the old saying goes, it’s all in the execution. And this movie is well done. It’s not the perfect comedy nor will it be in the top ranks of the screwball comedy genre, but it’s entertaining and worth a look.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone tells the story of, yes, Burt Wonderstone and his rise, fall, and resurrection in the world of Las Vegas performance magic. Like a master prestidigitator, I won’t distract you with a plot in one hand when the meat of the movie is elsewhere. I reference Talladega Nights for comparison or any number of movies where the top dog suddenly becomes the runt of the litter when a newcomer shows up to oust him. The former top dog must reinvent himself to once again lead the pack. Throw in some Ron Burgundy but instead of newsmen we have magicians, and there’s your movie.
Sounds cliché, and in truth it is, but no matter because the writing is witty and the performances top notch. Steve Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, but the character might just as well be named Michael Scott (of The Office fame). It’s Carell doing what he does best, playing a brash, obnoxious, clueless guy who, nonetheless, has some redeeming qualities. He carried that television series, and his persona carries this movie.
Alan Arkin follows in the footsteps of Betty White (and maybe John Houseman), who has become a supporting star in old age. Arkin plays Rance Holloway, the mentor to Burt Wonderstone and eventually his savior when Burt is down and out. Jim Carey is Steve Gray, rival magician, and he also does what he does best: Carey contorts his face and rolls his eyes and ululates like none other.
The oddest casting choice is Steve Buscemi, as Anton Marvelton, Burt’s magic partner. In the midst of Boardwalk Empire, where humor is as alien to his Nucky Thompson as a party without bath tub gin, Buscemi has chosen to go funny. It’s not that he can’t do comedy, but I’m not sure this is the best kind of comedy for him. He’s much better when the tone is darkly comic, as in Miller’s Crossing or Reservoir Dogs. Nonetheless, he does a fine job, but the performance and the casting choice never quite feels right.
James Gandolfini is a hotel and casino mogul, and Olivia Wilde is Carell’s love interest. Both are satisfactory but not remarkable. Jay Mohr also makes an appearance as a mumble-mouthed magician who must have ended up on the cutting room floor. The character really has no point as far as the final movie goes.
What makes The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a little more interesting than just a standard, big comedy is a comment it appears to offer. Jim Carey’s character is an up and coming “street magician” as compared to Carell’s casino, stage-style performer. Carey doesn’t so much do magic as he does stomach-turning stunts. He sleeps on hot coals overnight and holds his urine for days. His audience is on cable TV and the net, not in grand ballrooms. He’s all shock and no skill. One might say it’s a metaphor for the state of cinema where concept rules to the detriment of theme and character. I’m not sure the writers are going that far, but it’s a clear jab at media and entertainment consumption in the 21st century. Carey’s character ultimately gets his comeuppance, and old school skill and wonderment emerge as champions.
Indeed, the sequence in which Burt Wonderstone and his troupe perform the trick that puts them back on top is almost impossible to believe from a logic point of view, but it’s so deftly handled that it will make a believer out of the most skeptical (which usually applies to me). And that’s how the movie succeeds in a larger sense. There’s really nothing original about this film and by all rights it should fail, but through comedic sleight-of-hand The Incredible Burt Wonderstone pulls off a great trick.