Incredible Burt Wonderstone, TheReviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 06/25/13 02:28:58
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a safe film whose form follows its function precisely because it must. It skirts around darkness but can't plunge into it because to do so would be anathema to its insistence that good-natured wonder trumps mean-spirited, base forms of entertainment—it’s basically the Angry Old Man of comedies in a landscape dominated by the likes of “The Hangover” and “Project X.”The film opens on the plight of young men, though: in 1982, Albert is constantly harassed by bullies and even has to celebrate his birthday on his own while his mother works a double shift. She does leave him a present in the form of a magic kit endorsed by world famous magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin doing his umpteenth riff on “Alan Arkin”). Immediately inspired to become a magician, Albert also befriends a fellow loner, and they go on to become lifelong friends and stage partners Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buschemi). After a successful, decade-long run as Vegas’s top magic show, the two have become strained after falling victim to the monotony of their routine.
Burt especially has become a jerky Lothario oblivious to his dwindling popularity, but he’s soon jarred by the emergence of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a Criss Angel-style street “magician” who specializes in banal gags and masochistic feats for his television show “Brain Rapist.” He is, of course, wildly popular compared to the Burt and Anton, whose act is now a corny relic. They’re drawn into a pissing match with Gray, which especially sends Burt down a spiral of self-discovery where he has to rekindle is childlike wonder for his craft and become a decent human being with the help of Jane (Olivia Wilde), the latest in a long line of disposable female stage assistants.
Despite the presence of several funny people, I’m not convinced that “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is much of a comedy—it features several chuckles and a few hearty laughs, but it’s mostly a feel-good coming of age story where its subject just happens to be another case of arrested development. Carell is at least edging out of his comfort zone a bit—he’s often done zany and milquetoast, but Burt Wonderstone has him doing a routine that’s sort of like Ron Burgandy-lite.
His spray tan and absurd wig produce most of the immediate laughs, while Carell himself is just believable enough as a womanizing dick, even if he doesn’t completely throw himself into the complete callousness the role might require. There’s still a niceness that’s hard for Carell to shake here, which may be just as well; after all, this is a film where Steve Carell plays against type must learn to become more like Steve Carell’s usual characters.
On the other hand, Carey is the best he’s been in quite some time as Gray, the unhinged rival who doesn’t engage in magic but idiotic stunt work, like maiming himself for live crowds and holding his piss for days on end. Like Carell, Carey immediately looks ridiculous, and he goes into the shtick full bore to provide an adequate contrast. Gray is similarly oblivious but completely unrepentant—he’s the real man-child who never evolved beyond the mentality of a 12-year-old that thinks any attention is good attention, even if you’re only getting it because you’re drilling a hole into your own skull. Carey’s goofball energy is great and infectious—like the rest of the film, he can’t go too dark, which may be the biggest hindrance here.
Both the conflict and thematic implications are obvious: it’s old magic vs. a modern showmanship that thrives on appealing to the lowest common denominator. Gray’s stunts don’t require any real talent, only someone dumb enough to perform them—and, by extension, an audience willing to lap it up. As such, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” functions as an unsubtle commentary on an entertainment landscape that’s littered with this sort of stuff. Nobody cares for magic or real showmanship anymore, but the film firmly sides with it and insists on its continued relevance. It’s sentimental, but at least it’s an earnest sentiment that aims to be especially refreshing in light of other comedies.
The only problem is that it’s not as funny as some of them (like “The Hangover”) because it refuses to leap into the abyss (like “The Hangover III,” oddly enough). There are moments where dark pay-offs just elude the proceedings and get traded in for more pleasing alternatives. For example, Burt’s nightly routine usually finds him betting an unwitting girl in the crowd for a one-night stand; it’s awful stuff, but even it doesn’t come without a good-natured wrap-up that assures you that Burt isn’t really that bad of a guy (even though it’s interesting to note that he’s become an asshole just like the bullies he once hated, another true-to-life analogue that’s cropped up in geek circles lately). As it turns out, the same is also weirdly true of Steve Gray, who has a couple of bits that that could have been meaner and darker but stop short so the film won’t be too offensive.
Maybe that’s the right call in the end—after all, it’d be hard to make the case for Burt Wonderstone if his own film resorted to his rival’s tactics. We’re left with a film that’s fine, sweet, and incredibly slight. Considering the cast, it’s probably a bit too forgettable: Buscemi is underused (especially when he all but disappears from the picture), as is Wilde (a sneakily funny actress who briefly shines here). Despite my dig at Arkin’s lapsing into a shtick, he gives a reliable turn and earns a couple of laughs, while James Gandolfini is similarly solid as Burt’s employer. Meanwhile, Gillian Jacobs’s brief appearance is another reminder that Hollywood should be scrambling to find her some more prominent roles.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” came and went from theaters without much fanfare this year, and its home video release will give audiences another chance to check it out. Warner Brothers has prepped a solid DVD/Blu-ray combo back that features a strong high-definition transfer. The film’s photography is more remarkable than many comedies, and it’s reflected in the vibrant presentation here. While the disc features the requisite DTS-MA 5.1 track, the audio isn’t quite as noteworthy since much of the sound is confined to the front speakers. The extras here are mostly fluff: you get about 26 minutes worth of deleted scenes and alternate takes, a “Making Movie Magic” feature with David Copperfield, a 4-minute gag reel, and “Steve Gray Uncut,” a 10 minute feature with Carey in-character for “The Best of The Brain Rapist.”The name of Gray’s television show is the darkest joke here; within the context of the film, it highlights the ridiculous, juvenile mindset being criticized, and it’s hard not to agree with the central premise. That said, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” never quite shakes its grandpa routine—it’s a nice film that’s easy to smile and nod at, but its lack of bite also results in a lack of sustained laughs.
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