REVIEW: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone [2013]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: March 15th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Don Scardino
Writer(s): Jonathan M. Goldstein & John Francis Daley /
Chad Kultgen & Tyler Mitchell and Jonathan M. Goldstein & John Francis Daley (story)

“Pretend I’m still here and tell me all about it”

I’m a big magic fan—always have been. Armed with a set of tricks needing extensive instructions before allowing my parents to feign astonishment at my implementation, I watched every David Copperfield special and even went to a weekly magic class one summer as a kid. There is something about making the impossible possible through hard work and dedication that is utterly satisfying. Who wouldn’t enjoy witnessing the look in someone’s eye when they’ve been genuinely surprised by a flawless illusion and the determined stare of those desperately trying to figure out the secret? Magic reduces even the most adult of us to that child-like glee many have forgotten over years of maturity and responsibility. From Harry Houdini to David Blaine, Harry Potter to The Prestige—we’ll always be captivated by the unexplained.

I therefore understand Albert’s (Mason Cook) bullied youth being altered forever after opening a brand new Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) magic kit on his birthday at the start of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Constantly labeled a loser as he’s stuffed into a school locker, mastering the use of a plastic thumb to disappear a scarf will set him on a course towards celebrity, money, and women as well as on the path to his first—and possibly only—friend. Wowing Anthony (Luke Vanek) as their antagonistically social superiors laugh at the other end of the lunchroom, this one trick cements their bond with an imaginative excitement only magic can instill. Jotting down their most insane ideas inside a dime-store marble composition book, this bottomless enthusiasm propels them forward onto Bally’s Vegas marquee.

Sadly the wonder ensnaring these boys and spilling over into adulthood with the birth of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) dies too soon. What began in the film as a perfect mix of humor, parody, and homage quickly falls pray to contrivance upon learning how ten years on the casino stage ravaged their friendship. Yes, screenwriters Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (scribes on Horrible Bosses and the forthcoming Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) did extensive research on the isolating power of Vegas turning innocents into egomaniacal divas, but splitting up their magical duo via a public blowout on national television felt utterly tired. Potentially a hilariously absurd comedy, Wonderstone ends up another tale about a jaded dinosaur rediscovering the passion and fire that ultimately gave him success. Boring.

The trailers make it out to be an epic grudge match between Burt and Anton’s vintage aesthetic and Steve Gray’s (Jim Carrey) bold, new masochistic brand of shock and awe. While they’re ultimately pitted against one another to win a five-year contract on the strip and do cross paths for a few gags along the way, the filmmakers care little about the rivalry in lieu of a cathartic rebirth of Carell’s Wonderstone. Between the character’s cultivated accent of wealth, unhealthy obsession with himself, and complete disregard for social norms after living ten years in a hotel suite with room and maid service, watching it all disappear to make culture clash jokes leaves much to be desired. Burt learning the error of his ways to win back his friend, the girl, and success is not a worthwhile conflict.

Much like his Michael Scott on “The Office”, Carell’s Burt can’t help but redeem his previously deplorable attitude and render every action null and void due to a lesson learned. As a result, we don’t need his character to be a horrible person at all. Watching what happens during his slow thaw is boring, monotonous, and extremely clichéd. If only the film were actually about Burt and Anton working to survive amidst Steve Gray’s onslaught of in-your-face mutilation and we could pull for Wonderstone throughout instead of being forced to hate/pity him the entire second act knowing another reversal was inevitable. Then maybe stalwart TV-director Don Scardino could have engaged us with more impressively orchestrated tricks for laughs instead of cheap jokes and sentimental drivel.

The main character is introduced while reading a letter from his mother with instructions for baking his own birthday cake—sentimental shouldn’t be a factor. So why add the superfluity of aging mentor Holloway and stage tech turned pretty assistant revealed to be budding magician herself Jane (Olivia Wilde)? All they add are two more mirrors for Wonderstone to look into feeling remorse and/or regret for where his talent and life have led him. Both are wasted as pawns to play off of with only Arkin’s natural penchant for laughs courtesy of his character’s staunchly preserved cynicism to add value. At least Buscemi’s naïve pushover and James Gandolfini’s self-absorbed boss have small enough parts to allow their one-tricks to be one-trick. The rest masquerade as though something more.

It’s too bad because everyone plays his/her role so over-the-top that full-on farce would have been perfect. Screw telling the redemption story and just make it about magicians being stupid, gross, and insane. Carell is great as a bullheaded buffoon trying to do a two-person act solo; Arkin is brilliant mocking the fame he left behind; and even Jay Mohr’s bit part as an inept comic illusionist works strictly because he’s so unfortunate. Forcing these caricatures to pretend they’re real people is where the story falls flat. Just look at Carrey’s scene-stealing would-be Criss Angel to understand how overtly broad succeeds in making his narcissism and physical elasticity fantastic parody. We don’t need background history or personal evolution—Steve Gray is an embodiment of magic’s unorthodox nature.

I will say this, though: the punchline reveal shown at the start of the end credits almost makes seeing the film justifiable. It’s easily an extra half letter grade by itself and shows how great this project could have been if the filmmakers took themselves less seriously and threw out the hackneyed plot to focus solely on the personalities created.

[1] (L-r) STEVE BUSCEMI as Anton Marvelton and STEVE CARELL as Burt Wonderstone in New Line Cinema’s comedy “THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Ben Glass
[2] JIM CARREY as Steve Gray in New Line Cinema’s comedy “THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Ben Glass
[3] OLIVIA WILDE as Jane in New Line Cinema’s comedy “THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Ben Glass

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