Synopsis: Superstar illusionists and Las Vegas headliners Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) have fallen on hard times. The longtime friends now loathe each other and they face cutthroat competition from guerrilla street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), whose cult following surges with each outrageous stunt. But there’s still a chance to save the act – both onstage and off – if Burt can retrieve his magic mojo!
eyelights: Jim Carrey. the overall splendid cast. its satire of showbiz magic.
eyesores: the conventional plot structure and development. the trumped up magic tricks.
“Mr. Gray, what you do is not magic. It is monkey porn.”
‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ is a 2013 comedy starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde. It tells the story of Burt (Carell), a Vegas magician who has to start over after his lifelong partnership with his best friend, Anton (Buscemi), dissolves. Out of favour and competing with the latest in stage antics from his rival, Steve Gray (Carrey), he hits rock bottom before redeeming himself.
The picture failed to spellbind moviegoers and critics, landing a paltry 27 million dollars on a 30 million budget. And, frankly, with a title like that, a crappy trailer, and its airbrushed nightmare of a poster (seriously, I couldn’t tell who was who until after seeing the movie – aside for Olivia Wilde, naturally), it’s not surprising that the picture didn’t connect with an audience. To me, it just didn’t have any pull whatsoever.
And that’s a shame: While the core story is quite conventional, the picture has a lot of tricks up its sleeves.
‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ tells the story of Albert , a lonely, bullied kid who gets a magic kit for his birthday. It inspires him to become a magician to amaze people, thinking it would attract their admiration and gain their respect. Soon thereafter, he is approached at school by Anthony, an outcasted weakling – who, awed by Albert’s tricks, partners up with him. Thus a lifelong “magical friendship” begins.
Flash forward more than thirty years later and the duo, now called Burt and Anton, are playing a long-term residency in a Vegas hotel and are challenged by a breed of street magicians who do dangerous stunts and webcast their exploits to popular acclaim. Faced with being eclipsed by Steve Gray, they are forced to reconsider their quaint and well-worn routines – pushing their partnership to the breaking point.
The picture’s success rests entirely on its main cast:
- Steve Carrell is a nuanced actor who can bridge comedy and drama really well. This works to his advantage here because Burt doesn’t get that many jokes, but Carell can mine the situations to play up the character’s pathetic side. He’s also one of those rare actors who can play @$$hole and endearing at the same time: Burt is an entitled spaz who’s totally out of touch with reality and his humanity. But Carell makes it impossible for us to not despise him. We even end up empathizing with him a little bit.
- Steve Buscemi is pitch perfect as Anton, a schleppy but loveable loser akin to Donny (in ‘The Big Lebowski‘) but much more dialed down. It’s pretty much a straight role, but he does it so well. What’s great is that, even though Anton could be viewed as a bit of a failure (in fact, the running gag is that everyone considers him redundant, like a dead weight for Burt), Buscemi gives him a dignity and warmth that completely counter-balances his apparent flimsiness. He’s an excellent counter-point to Carell.
- Jim Carrey utterly steals the show as the egotistical attention-seeker Steve Gray. His typical mannerisms crop up, but he weaves them into the part so well. He totally sinks his teeth into playing the film’s cocky villain, making him hilariously absurd – but not so despicable or vile that you can’t laugh at him. It’s a terrific character, one of his best, spoofing the Criss Angel, “Mind Freak”, type. What’s great is that the way Gray gets his due is self-inflicted and not out of character. It’s very well thought-out and delivered.
Then there’s the secondary characters, who are a mixed bag:
- Alan Arkin is absolutely superb as Burt’s mentor. I don’t often enjoy him (with the notable exception of ‘Grosse Pointe Blank‘) because I sometimes find his delivery to be akin to a blunt instrument when you need laser sharpness. But he plays it straight here, doesn’t shout or get hysterical (some of his worst follies) and he hits the nuanced comedic notes perfectly here. And the one time he gets to act out, scurrying under a bed, is absolutely hilarious. He’s a perfect complement to the rest of the cast.
- Olivia Wilde plays Jane, a stage hand who gets hired by Burt to replace their assistant, who quits abruptly mid-show. The character is interesting because she’s also a magician, and a great one at that, she’s smart and she has self-respect. But, while Wilde is good in the part, being only a secondary character Jane is merely half-baked – she should have been a stand-out, given that she’s more interesting than the others, but somehow she falls flat. And that’s a shame because Jane had potential.
- James Gandolfini plays Doug Munny, Vegas hotel owner and Burt and Anton’s boss. There’s not much to the character, and Gandolfini does his usual thing; he’s neither outstanding nor forgettable in what amounts to a mere supporting role.
Although the cast is the film’s main attraction, it is backed by a large number of side-splitting gags, clever lines, as well as situational humour – all of which they deliver skillfully. Frankly, one gets the impression that the writers just wanted to feed the actors (and the audience) some laughs and structured it around a generic -but cohesive- whole simply because it was easier to put all those pieces together.
And, for the most part, it works. In, fact most of the time, the laughs keep the viewers distracted. It’s in the third act that the picture trips up noticeably, with a wrap-up that’s far too convenient and rote (what with the duo’s reunion and then Carell and Wilde getting together, if only briefly – as if it was requisite, but not afforded any devotion by the filmmakers). Those are mere blips on the radar, however.
The worst part is Burt and Anton’s final act, the disappearing audience, which is absolutely not credible from a logistical standpoint and is a lawsuit waiting to happen – no one in their right mind would attempt this. Having said that, there are a few laughs that come of it, especially right before the credits, in a outrageous sequence that explains what happens between the audience disappearing and reappearing.
This leads me to the magic tricks themselves, which are all trickery. It would have been nice to see real sleight-of-hand, but most of the tricks on display here are obvious CGI, editing tricks and stand-ins for the real actors. That was disappointing because there’s no place for awe when you can see the man behind the curtain. And, as we all know, no magician should reveals his/her secrets. Sadly, this movie does exactly that.
Still, it’s fun to watch the trumped up showmanship and, if one can suspend one’s disbelief enough and ignore the core plot, it’s possible to savour the many elements that make this picture unique (including the setting). ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ is an enjoyable 90 minutes of good, clean, silly fun – so much so that I actually watched it a second time around not long after the first viewing.
And I’ve no doubt that there are more to come.
Date of viewing: August 5, 2015