Directed by Don Scardino
Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
For all my life, even throughout my childhood, I have had little to no interest in the “art” of magic. None whatsoever. Well, wait. That is probably not entirely accurate. Magic comes in many different forms. The traditional definition deals with the art of illusion and slight of hand, and celebrates the likes of Houdini and David Copperfield, etc. That magic I don’t much care for because I know it’s not real, and I never really cared to find out how they do it; it just never interested me much. But to be truthful, I love magic! Just of a different variety. My affection for magic comes in the form of movies, which hold the imagination of millions by the manipulation of images mixed with the capture of everyday realities and truths. Some of the best cinema, however, is pure escapism, living the unreal, and sometimes this involves movie magic, which is a subject I have been long fascinated.
So imagine when one type meets the other in the latest Steve Carell vehicle The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Carell plays the title character, who began life as a nerdy little boy who was always picked on. But one birthday, his mother bought him a magic kit from the famous Rance Holloway, and he soon found a calling. And when he impressed a fellow outcast, the two grew up to become the Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), a formidable magic pair who impressed Las Vegas and went straight to the top. But after a number of years of the same stale act, the two are threatened by “shock” magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who is changing what is popular in modern magic. The stubborn Wonderstone forces friction with his boss (James Gandolfini) and his partner Anton. Soon enough, with the inspiration of assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the duo returns with a trick fresh enough to save their names.
Before getting into the seats for this film I had very mixed expectation. Such a premise, with such stars which I adore, mix to create the potential for a great comedy. The premise allows itself to have the opportunity for great set gags, but it is also cheesy enough to lead down the wrong road depending on where the writers and director chose to take it. Unfortunately for all of us, they chose to walk down the boring, predictable, and uninspired path. The twists and turns the film take are never coupled with any real weight. I don’t much care for any of these characters, and part of the reason is their shallow depth. This is a condition which can easily be overcome in a comedy if the set pieces are funny enough that we don’t care if we don’t see much in the characters, but they are not near strong enough.
This is a bit of an odd combination given the cast of the film. I find myself a bit dumbfounded even as I write this. I like Steve Carell, and I certainly think he does a good egotistical maniac incapable of seeing the need of inspiration and partnership until he hits bottom. I like Jim Carrey, and his short time on screen (which was quite surprising it was so brief), showed the physical humor he is so good at. I like Olivia Wilde, she is gorgeous, and she does that well here too. But honestly, hers was the only interesting character arc. The problem with the film is clearly the script. It lacks any imagination and inspiration, which is ironic given it is a film about a magician who cannot find inspiration to break from the routine. There is nothing more generic and routine than this film.
I was a little surprised to find the name John Francis Daley in the credits as one of the screenwriters as well. For those of you unfamiliar, he played Geek Sam in the cult show Freaks and Geeks. If you are still unfamiliar, go watch that show, and just go ahead and avoid this. I would loved to have sung his praises, but instead I was just left wanting more of Freaks and Geeks, and less of Burt Wonderstone. It was distracting because the film allowed me to be distracted with how bland it was. Not bland, however, and in an effort to make this review not a complete essay on negative experience, was Alan Arkin. Arkin is the silver lining of the film, doing his best to raise the lackluster script by playing the Barry Sanders of magicians, the man who retired during his prime when he had lost his inspiration. Other than that though, I found the whole thing to be pretty much a snoozefest. What a shame.
** – Fair