Mark Reviews Movies

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Don Scardino

Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 3/15/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 14, 2013

There are two supporting characters who are far more interesting than the titular character in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. One is a street magician played by Jim Carrey, whose character's idea of magic is to engage in various masochistic activities, from hammering a nail into a table with his forehead to scalding his arm over birthday candles so that the blisters spell out "Happy birthday" to drilling a hole in his skull with a power tool. It's a showy role of inspired physical comedy that has us chuckling as much in the horrified anticipation of what stunt he will pull next whenever he shows up on screen as the actual gags themselves.

The other is a retired magician played by Alan Arkin; he has seen every trick in the book—mainly because he wrote that book—and simply wants to live out the remainder of his life without ever again having to deal with the industry. He's tired and cynical and full of vinegar (Carrey's character is, in one bit, full of the substance that usually precedes that liquid and follows "full of").

These two represent the comic center of the movie, while Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), the narcissistic and oblivious protagonist (His assistant, played by Olivia Wilde, notes that she, an aspiring magician, idolized him for 10 years, and it only took a minute for her to hate him), goes through the motions of becoming a better person and performer. What makes those other two characters entertaining is their stasis—the fact that there is little room for them for change (The aging magician's reversion to his enjoyment of the craft doesn't completely alter his personality; when he's back on stage, he opens his part of the act by insulting an audience member's fashion decisions).

Burt, on the other hand, "needs" to evolve for the sake of the narrative, even though he's at his most entertaining when trapped in routine. One of the funniest scenes in the movie watches as he improvises an adaptation of a two-man routine into a solo act—talking to a partner who isn't there and referring to his relationship with himself as the "magical friendship" of the show's title.

That scene understands that good comedy comes naturally when people who are locked into one way of thinking or behaving are forced into situations that challenge their expectations. A similar scenario befalls Burt's partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) when he gives up the world of magic for the world of philanthropy. He tours developing countries where food and clean water are scarce and decides to give the children there what he believes they really want: magic kits. "It turns out," Anton realizes too late, "they really wanted food and clean water." At least he provides one kid with a rabbit out of his hat.

Burt and Anton have been friends and magic partners since childhood, and after a 30-year career, their act is getting stale. Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), the owner of the casino in Las Vegas where the two have had their own theater for a decade, insists the duo come up with new material. Steve Gray (Carrey), the street magician with a propensity for grievous bodily injury, has changed the way people look at magic, whether they like it or not. Their attempt—locking themselves in a container hanging over the Strip—fails miserably because Burt doesn't prepare (They're meant to stay in for a week; Burt lasts about 20 minutes before succumbing to claustrophobia). Anton quits, leaving Burt looking for work.

After trying every arena available to him (The last casino on his list ends up being scheduled for demolition the day he shows up to inquire about a job, and he has to audition to sell merchandise at a store), Burt has to adjust to a far less pampered life than that to which he has become accustomed. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have some fun with this, like how he complains about the size of his bed in the hotel where takes up residence and the way he puts the dishes outside of the door of his assistant's apartment, assuming someone will come by and take them.

Eventually Burt ends up at a retirement home for Vegas performers where he meets his idol Rance Holloway (Arkin), who tears apart Burt's technique and lack of passion. His start on the road to personal and professional redemption signifies the moment that Burt starts to become less interesting. As strange as it is for Carell to be playing an unsympathetic cad, it's even stranger for him to become a bland tool of the screenplay.

There are some genuinely funny moments in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, especially when Carrey and Arkin are at work, and it ends with an inspired bit involving Burt's comeback trick, in which he and his partners in crime (literally, in this case) decide to make an audience disappear (It's not funny until we see the process for accomplishing the feat). If only the movie could better maintain what makes its hero amusing as the story progresses, it might have worked better as a whole.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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