THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013) MOVIE REVIEW

Title: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Year: 2013
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
Play time: 
Director: Don Scardino
Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring: Steve Carell, Luke Vanek, Steve Buscemi

Seen at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.

The opening scenes of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone are hugely endearing. In the 80s, two junior high outcasts discover magic as a way to deflect bullies and make friends. (“Everyone loves a magician!” exclaims the instructional VHS.) Decades later, the boys have grown into Burt Wonderstone and Alvin Marvelton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi), headliners of a hugely cheesy but wildly popular Vegas show about the history of their “magical friendship.” We see parts of their latest act toward the end of a fleet, funny opening montage, and it’s a riot: dressed up in absurd velvet, the pair shuffle around the stage in barely choreographed “dance” moves and sexually harass their female assistant to enthusiastic applause — but then the tricks are actually kind of pretty good. There’s a genuine showmanship to them, at least. The film brims with possibility: This is a world in which these pompadoured doofuses are legitimate Vegas rock stars. What else?

Well, Wonderstone turns out to be a complete jerk, for one thing: a misogynist egomaniac who has turned sex in his hotel suite into a Vegas attraction, complete with green-screen photos and a release form. (It seems that the instructional video’s advice went to his head.) And his and Alvin’s popularity is waning from its peak. There’s a new star in town: a street “magician” named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who specializes in stunts like holding his urine for 72 hours and spending the night on hot coals. Burt and Alvin, it seems, have to adapt to what today’s audiences want, or perish.

Once Carrey shows up, the film trades its loose, goofball feel for more pointed satire and more conventional plotting: Will Burt learn to be a better person and recapture the sense of awe and wonder that (the movie insists, after first telling us something else) got him into magic in the first place? Will he team up with the beautiful assistant he insulted and shunned (Olivia Wilde) to defeat Gray and climb back to the top of Vegas? Etc.

The problem is that the satire isn’t that funny (Carrey just repeats the same joke over and over), and the plotting is lame even by the standards of this sort of comic lark. Carell’s character does a total and abrupt 180 at the drop of a hat, turning from a delusional asshole into a good-natured shmoe when it comes time to start wrapping things up; and after a promising start, Wilde turns into just a bland female love interest and foil for Carell’s shtick. Later in the film, scenes start to just totally flop, with a climactic magic showdown at a child’s birthday party barely drawing a chuckle. And it increasingly becomes clear that the film only professes an affection for magic, given its focus on tricks that are impossible or just plain dumb.

Which is a shame, because Carell and Buscemi are a great pairing (the film quickly goes south when Buscemi disappears for a while), and the film has a non-stop energy and a quick pace that’s hard to come by these days. (Its screenwriters worked on Horrible Bosses, which was similarly tight and propulsive.) Even when this lovably half-baked effort really started to whiff, I couldn’t bring myself to be too annoyed. You could do a lot worse.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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