The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

Comedy’s current frat pack’s flicks have become so formulaic that for their fans half the fun (and for their critics half the problem) is ticking off their checklist of indulgences. Celebrity cameo-ing as themselves: check. Up-and-coming actress in under-written ‘strong female’ romantic support: check. Respected thesp as straight man foil: check. Scene-stealing villain role for established comedy superstar: check...

Steve Carell’s newest effort is to all intents and purposes another Will Ferrell sports comedy in the vein of Talladega Nights and Blades Of Glory, but this tale of rival magicians on the Vegas strip suffers in comparison to its predecessors, despite the initial script dating back to 2006. It’s unclear whether the script was re-written to try to shoehorn in more of Ferrell’s brand of acquired-taste anarchy, but the result is an odd mix of affectionate satire and jarringly brutal slapstick, the former more successful than the latter except for when an unhinged Jim Carrey is on the prowl.

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Burt & Anton are Vegas’ number one magician act, with a glitzy show at one of the top casinos regularly selling out despite their being hopelessly stuck in the past. They soon come to realise this themselves when masochistic street showman Steve Gray blasts into town and onto screens, with his painful stunts stealing their limelight and threatening their careers. When Burt & Anton attempt to out-do Gray, they have a literal falling-out that sees Burt slip into obsolescent obscurity. Enlisting the services of attractive assistant Jane and geriatric childhood hero Rance Holloway, Burt’s greatest trick might just be patching things up with Anton in order to stage a historic and unheralded comeback.

30 Rock director Don Scardino is running on fumes for much of the duration here, with syrupy sentimentality eventually bogging down what initially appears to be some pretty out-there comedy. The script’s soft side works well during the flashbacks to Burt and Anton’s childhood, while their authentic stage show as adults is both lovingly lampooned and a genuine tribute to clear inspirations Siegfried & Roy. Meanwhile Burt’s woeful womanising and kitsch costumes garner easy laughs but it all feels a little stretched and anodyne, with the unusual backdrop coming off as little more than a novelty setting for some pretty predictable schtick.

Then Jim Carrey enters the fray and punches everything up to a whole new pitch of actual unbridled insanity. Obviously modelled on street magicians cum Youtube sensations David Blaine and Criss Angel, Gray’s stunts are so outlandish and Carrey’s performance so no-holds-barred outrageous that audiences may feel conflicted as to how funny it all actually is. For better and worse, this is Carrey’s most daring role since Me, Myself And Irene, harking back to the awkward edginess of divisive dark comedy The Cable Guy. While you may not be sure how to take him, it’s a shame he’s given so little screen time, as the film could certainly use more of his energy.

As the story progresses, Burt bounces predictably but unconvincingly from mean-spirited egotist to born-again human being, re-discovering his love for his trade through a charmingly grouchy if typecast Alan Arkin and Olivia Wilde’s wide-eyed but credibility-stretching assistant. Elsewhere, James Gandolfino crops up in an alarming toupee but fails to transcend his vaguely neurotic Sopranos bluster. Despite acing one of the best comic set-pieces involving magic sets being distributed as humanitarian aid, Steve Buscemi is also largely wasted though still likeable as the put-upon Anton, his eventual return to the fold proving an agreeable but under-whelming catalyst for the climax.

Carell’s skills as both a dramatic actor and laconic comedian are sadly part of the reason the film is so uneven: he’s so good as the despicable diva in the early stretch that it’s near impossible to buy into his conversion. This means his purely sympathetic efforts towards the end are ineffectual in spite of his innate appeal, leaving the resolution feeling like a foregone conclusion as opposed to an actual scoundrel coming good.

As Carrey’s character trajectory takes the comedy into ever more bizarre and surprising places, Carell and co just tread water in comparison, with their grand finale a ridiculously elaborate stunt that goes against all the good work Scardino has done previously in keeping most of the magic believable and therefore entertaining and ingenious in its own right. With everything wrapped up too neatly and sweetly, there’s little that lingers except for the antics of Carrey’s crazed ‘brain rapist’, who could well ensure this has enduring cult appeal for couch potato comedy fans. It’s a brisk and breezy little show for all that though, with enough first-half fun and inspired lunacy thereafter to be worth a watch, but if Scardino had peppered the gags and navigated the tonal shifts better this really could have been incredible.

Reviewed on: 21 Mar 2013
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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone packshot
A magician tries to salvage his flagging act with a daring stunt when facing off against a rival
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Director: Don Scardino

Writer: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Starring: Steve Carell, Luke Vanek, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin

Year: 2013

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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