For years, the magical duo of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) were the toast of Las Vegas. Their lifelong pursuit of prestidigitation has lead to a success that, while adequately lining their pockets, has driven a wedge between the two. The egotistical Wonderstone refuses to take heed of the prevailing winds and the increasingly unimaginative act loses its audience to the edgier magic of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Can Burt and Anton wave their wands and return themselves to marquee glory?
Says Alan Arkin’s character of performing magic, “at some point, it just becomes rote.” How unfortunately accurate these words prove to be. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which was lucky enough to somehow be one of the films to premiere at and kick-start the 2013 SXSW Festival, is anything but. It is rather a dull, lifeless, paint-by-numbers studio comedy that flourishingly gestures in the direction of humor, but seldom tricks us into laughter.
The characters are such broadly drawn dolts with no discernible measure of reality, and all mug for the camera so much as to necessitate handles around the ears. The script is so flaccid that there exist no real character arcs. Take for instance the title character, Wonderstone. He never actually hits rock bottom, as he is intended to, but rather rock middle: hovering at all times along tepid stasis. The ending is also among the laziest and most inconceivably convenient wrap-ups in recent memory. It is not often that a protagonist has not the slightest hand in the besting of his foe.
It is painfully ironic that a movie about performers in a largely corny profession is populated with actors who seem hell-bent on proving themselves equally uninspired. Every performer in this film is nestled safely into their comfort zone. Carell is both socially inept and dopey, Buscemi is odd and off-putting (even by Buscemi standards), and Carrey runs through his own trick deck of rubber-faced buffoonery. Even Arkin, who represents the high point of the film, if there indeed be one, falls back on his go-to cantankerous trope with little in the way of effective comical dialogue to support the lean. They flatly occupy their designated time on screen, but the film lacks all semblance of heart or clever invention.
Olivia Wilde, like a magician’s assistant, is paid to be pretty here. Her character flirts with a compelling back story that fuels her motivation, but all that vanishes into a puff of smoke prior to any satisfying conclusion. James Gandolfini is surprisingly humorous in a minor role, but again given so little to work as to be wasted. To his credit, Carrey is guffaw-inducing in those few moments in which he fully embraces the absurdity of the Criss Angel-style street magician, but he inevitably lets those moments devolve into full-on self-indulgent idiocy.
Truly the greatest illusion accomplished by The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is that Carrel appears where his Anchorman co-star Will Ferrell should be standing. I would bet a sleeve-full of scarves that Burt Wonderstone was originally written as a Ferrell vehicle. All of the recognizable trademarks of ol’ Will’s outings are starkly evident. Wonderstone is a narcissistic man-child in a highly specialized profession. He is a brainless egomaniac set up for a fall by the appearance of an upstart rival. He is booted from prominence only to find a way to return to the spotlight after a slight boost in humility. Indeed there is even a scene of unintelligible sobbing in Burt Wonderstone that smacks of Ron Burgundy’s “glass case of emotion incident.”
What all this amounts to is a frustratingly cliché and formulaic studio cash-grab. Calculate these flaws alongside the bizarre, clumsy editing as well as a soundtrack heavy on overbearing pop that often drowns out the action on screen, and you’ll probably agree that there is no magic to be found in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. SXSW deserved better than this.
[Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]