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Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Watch Me Pull A Crappy Movie Out Of My Hat (Okay, Maybe Not The Hat)"
2 stars

Thanks to an ever-expanding collection of technological advances in visual effects combined with old-fashioned editorial sleight-of-hand, there seems to be virtually no limit to the number of astounding illusions that can be experienced via the world of filmmaking. Ironically, one of the few things that Hollywood has never managed to figure out how to depict in a convincing manner is magic itself--the kind of trickery ranging from the elaborate productions of David Copperfield to the simple astonishments that can be achieved with nothing more than a deck of cards or a coin. The problem is that while audiences for a magic trick being performed before their eyes are usually willing to buy into them despite knowing deep down that what they are seeing is merely an illusion, they are unable to make that leap of faith when they see the same kinds of tricks performed in a movie because their instincts tell them that what they are watching has been augmented in some way or another.

As a result, there have been very few successful films made involving magic and magicians and the ones that have--and other than Christopher Nolan's stunning "The Prestige" and the cult favorite "Penn & Teller Get Killed," none immediately spring to mind--are those that have overtly grappled with the difficulty of creating illusions that can convince people that they have seen the seemingly impossible. Now comes the new comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and it will only take a few minutes for most viewers to realize that it too is going to fail to pull a metaphorical rabbit out of its hat. In theory, the notion of a film involving the dueling illusions of a pair of rival Vegas magicians sounds like an enormously promising concept but this one never figures out a way to make it work and the end result is just a big missed opportunity.

Steve Carell stars as Burt Wonderstone, a magician whose show has been one of the most popular attractions in Vegas for the last decade. Alas, the fame and riches have gone to his head and he is now an egotistical ass who mistreats his childhood friend and partner in the act, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) while coasting through his nightly performances doing the same old stuff and putting more effort into finding new tricks to do after the show than in new ones for the show itself, if you know what I mean. In other words, Burt is ripe for a downfall and it comes in the form of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a scruffy street magician whose bizarre and grotesque tricks and feats of endurance have made him a cult sensation.

At first, Burt dismisses Steve as a weirdo whose stunts hardly qualify as magic ("He cuts himself and mumbles. So what? My niece does that.") but with his own audiences beginning to dwindle, Burt tries to do a similar stunt but the end result is disastrous enough to destroy his partnership with Anton and cost him his job to boot. Reduced to performing tricks at a nursing home, Burt hits rock bottom but manages to rediscover his lifelong love of magic with the aid of his childhood idol, magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), and comely former assistant and wannabe magician Jane (Olivia Wilde). This couldn't come at a better time since a wealthy casino owner (James Gandolfini) has announced an elaborate talent show, with a five-year contract at his new showroom as the prize, that will allow him to face off against Steve for a final showdown that could put him back on top.

If this plot description sounds vaguely familiar to you, it is not a coincidence because "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" follows the template that Will Ferrell has been using for many of his starring vehicles from "Anchorman" on. It deals with a peculiar sort of insular subculture that nevertheless seems ripe for the comedic picking. The main character is someone who has reached the top of that particular subculture but has become a clueless and egotistical jerk in the process. There is the unexpected arrival of a rival in the field who winds up sending the main character into a personal and professional tailspin. There is the anxious night or two of the soul in which the main character flails about until he learns to be a better person both personally and professionally, usually with the aid of an aging mentor and/or a fabulous looking babe who inexplicably continues to stick around despite his consistently boorish behavior. And of course, there is some final competition or confrontation that allows him to once again return to the pinnacle of his profession a wiser and better person.

The trouble with this particular cinematic formula is that while it works perfectly well for the likes of Will Ferrell (or it did until he went to this particular well a few times too many), it is one that is only suited to a certain kind of performer and Steve Carell is not one of them. Both Ferrell and Carell are inspired comedic performers, to be sure, but the difference is that Ferrell has the ability to play a dim-witted jackass in such a way so that viewers can be alternately amused and appalled with his behavior before his magical transformation into a good guy. Carell, on the other hand, has such a friendly and pleasant demeanor as an actor that it is almost impossible take him seriously as a terrible person and indeed, he just seems too even-keeled and well-mannered to come across as convincingly boorish as required here. The disconnect between performer and role is so great that most of the laughs get lost along the way and by the time he finally gets to play nicer, it is too little too late.

It wouldn't be fair to hang the failings of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" entirely on Carell because there is plenty of blame to go around. The screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley has a few big laughs here and there that are punctuated by long and aimless stretches in which nothing much of interest happens and topped off by a spectacularly lame final act in which what had previously been introduced as a one-off gag (and one of the better ones) is asked to bear the burden of inspiring the less-than-inspiring conclusion. Although a veteran of the late, great "30 Rock," a show that thrived on defying convention at every breathless turn, director Don Scardino's work here is painfully square and flatfooted--he may be working in Vegas but his work here is pure Duluth. And even if you could somehow convince yourself that the illusions on display were the result of anything other than technical razzle-dazzle, they would still fall flat because they are neither plausible as tricks nor particularly funny as jokes with the finale being the biggest letdown on both fronts.

There are a few amusing moments to be had in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," most of them courtesy of Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin--the former is funnier than he has been in a while as the half egocentric/half masochistic David Blaine knockoff and Arkin at this point is in one of those grooves where even the smallest gesture can inspire enormous laughs. Unfortunately, they are both stuck in smaller supporting roles and every time they threaten to get a real comic energy going, the film cuts away from them to get back to the bummer already in progress. In the end, I guess it is fitting that this is a movie about magicians because long before it ends, you will be wishing that it too would just disappear.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24455&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/14/13 17:07:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/02/18 Louise Pretty stupid and sometimes tasteless. Don't bother. 2 stars
6/09/14 Richard Brandt Recognizable targets and predictable character arcs; passable 3 stars
1/26/14 Monday Morning A hell of a lot better magic movie than "The Prestige," but that's not saying a lot. 3 stars
11/17/13 mr.mike A few laughs due mostly to Carrey. 3 stars
6/18/13 Pierre Mosbey Decent, but Jim Carrey proves he's forever funny. 3 stars
6/11/13 Langano Not enough laughs 2 stars
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  15-Mar-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Jun-2013

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  DVD: 25-Jun-2013

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