A film review by Craig J. Koban March 19, 2013



2013, PG-13, 100 mins.

Burt: Steve Carell / Steve: Jim Carrey / Rance: Alan Arkin / Anton: Steve Buscemi / Doug: James Gandolfini / Jane: Olivia Wilde

Directed by Don Scardino / Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley

The wonderfully titled THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE has a premise that offers up a promise of being a nail-biting industry satire.  It chronicles the clash of dueling magicians on the Las Vegas strip that pits old school showbiz illusionists versus a new breed of street performers that engage in disturbing self-mutilation to wow audiences.  Clearly, the targets of the film are the David Copperfields, Siegfried and Roys, and David Blaines of the world, and the film certainly pays all of its targets a certain level of mocking disdain as well as fondness at the same time, which is not an easy dichotomy to pull off.  

Even when the satire lacks a cold hearted and acidic edge, THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE makes up for it in terms of how engaging its cast is here for unbridled lunacy, with all of them acceptably hamming it up to frequently hilarious effect.  Steve Carell plays the title character, whom as a young lad in the early 80’s was beaten up and tormented by neighborhood bullies, but found a sense of escape and recluse in watching VHS instructional tapes of his idol, magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).  From there, Burt and his new BFF, Anton Marvelton (played later by Steve Buscemi) vowed to become world famous illusionists.  By the time they hit adulthood they have indeed become famous, playing to sold-out shows in Las Vegas. 

Their shows are amusing in their set-up, employing everything from mullet wigs, velvet suits, and even a dance number to the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.”  Yet, all of the success, acclaim, and riches has gone to Burt’s head, as the chronic narcissist constantly bickers with his once best friend behind the scenes and treats him like a slave instead of a partner.  During one nearly botched show, Burt and Anton have to, on the spot, hire their pretty new assistant, Jane (the beautiful and energetic Olivia Wilde) to be with them on the stage when their last girl quits in a fit of anger.  During the show, Burt matter-of-factly asks Jane to sleep with him.  When she refuses, he whines like a toddler that didn’t get the toy he wanted. 



Things get more complicated for the dynamic illusionist duo when their antiquated shows begin to lose their popularity and their boss, hotel casino mogul (James Gandolfini) wants the pair to freshen up their act and try new things, like, for example, what a new street performer named Steve Grey (Jim Carrey) is doing.  Grey is one of those hilariously unappealing, pompous, egomaniacal, and audience-loathing performers that believes that shocking his viewers to the point of vomiting (which he does at one point) is the new wave of magic.  His tricks involving everything from slicing his cheek open to remove a playing card, sleeping – not walking – on piping hot coals, letting a crowd of people beat him with a baseball bat until he up-chucks candy, and, yes, a 12 day stunt to hold in his urine.  When a reporter asks him – several days in – what is going through his mind, Grey uproariously deadpans, “I really have to pee.” 

Despite the fact that Burt and Anton despise what Grey represents, they nonetheless try to embrace his brand of showmanship by engaging in a very public stunt that involves them being suspended in small glass box on a busy city street for days, but the haplessly unprepared Burt barely lasts for 15 minutes until he starts crying like a school girl to be let out.  Anton leaves Burt in a fit of anger, realizing that their careers are over and reputations are ruined, which leaves Burt alone, jobless, and homeless.  Burt turns to Jane, who begrudgingly lets him, largely because she worshiped him at the opening stages of his career.  He is then forced to take a series of increasingly demoralizing jobs, one of which is working as a two-bit magician at a local retirement home, where, wouldn’t you know it, Rance Holloway now resides.  If only the aging trickster would help Burt and Jane beat Grey at an upcoming battle of magicians that will net the winner a highly lucrative contract to headline a new luxurious hotel?  Hmmmm...

HORRIBLE BOSSES’ scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathon M. Goldstein wrote WONDERSTONE’s script, and even when the story feels contrived, predictably engineered, and wallows in episodic hijinks, it still manages to be a modest absurdist delight for the most part.  This, again, is in large part due to the performers that realize that they’re in a cornball farce and, in turn, play up to the broad stereotypes of the flamboyant magician lifestyle.  Carell in particular has a field day with making his otherwise repellent me-first and sex-hungry diva into someone that’s inexplicably likable and sympathetic.   He’s also loveably clueless as to how the world operates outside of casino life (when he shacks up with Jane, he leaves the dinner plates outside of her door, thinking that room service will pick them up).  Buscemi and Wilde are essentially playing things straight to Carell’s inspired buffoonery, although Anton is just as idiotic; at one point he decides to abandon magic and becomes a relief worker to a poverty and hunger stricken village in Africa.  While there, he gives them magic kits instead of clean water and food. 

Carrey arguably owns the lion’s share of the hearty laughs in the film as the long-bleached haired, tattoo-adorned, crazy eyed, and limitlessly theatrical street performer that wallows in disgusting ways to shock his followers.  His on-going reality show is the amusingly hostile sounding “Brain Rapist” where he engages in stunt after stunt that puts unnecessary harm to his body, much to the dismay of his viewers.  I have often admired Carrey for his under-appreciated dramatic work, but there is something to be said about him going back to his rubber faced and madcap comedic roots where he’s willing to do anything for a laugh, including…at one point...drilling a hole into his skull and surviving.  Kids: don’t try this at home 

Yeah, there's much of THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE that feels safely padded with run-of-the-mill material when it should have euphorically gone for the satiric jugular (Olivia Wilde’s sprightly luminosity is wasted in routine girlfriend-interest role) and many gags do indeed fall flat.  Alas, for everyone that does, there’s two or three that garner large guffaws (like how Gandolfini’s moronic mogul uses actor Mandy Patinkin's name as an unintentionally funny punch line at one point), and a little bit of Alan Arkin – who seems to make every film he’s in that much funnier – goes an awfully long way.  THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE does not score huge points for being truly daring with the material, but it engages in enough comedic sleight-of-hand for 90-plus minutes - and superbly harnesses its wonderfully zany cast to run rampantly wild through their ridiculous creations - to warrant a recommendation. 

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