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AUSTIN - I am fascinated by the world of stage magic. Always have been. It was hard not to become interested when I was growing up in the '70s because it was the age of the big prime time magic specials. During that era, there were two guys who always seemed to be in the lead, the ones who were turning out the most theatrical and the most entertaining specials, Doug Henning and David Copperfield. The idea that there was a rivalry between them over who was the best magician was part of what kept my friends and I so engaged from special to special, from year to year.
In recent years, I've been far less interested in the magic you see on TV, and part of that is because of the almost anti-theatricality that guys like David Blaine and Kriss Angel depend on for their performance personas. It feels to me like magic has evolved into something I don't particularly enjoy, or at least it does until I go to a place like the Magic Castle in LA and see somebody doing close-up magic that once again blows my mind and rekindles my sense of wonder. Intellectually, I understand how most tricks work, and I know misdirection is being used to help steer the illusions, but when someone pulls it off, there will always be that delicious feeling that something truly remarkable has just happened right in front of my eyes.
The underlying premise for "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a rich one, a way of dramatizing the battle that is going on for the definition of magic, a struggle between the old-school theatrical style of a Copperfield and the blunt-edged hipster version practiced by a David Blaine. The world of magicians is also somewhat ripe for parody, and "Wonderstone" wants to both lampoon the world and also honestly reflect what's going on in it. That's a tall order, and unfortunately, it does not feel like the creative team was fully up to the task. As a result, "Wonderstone" ends up being an uneven experience, a movie that never quite clicks on a narrative level even as it offers up some sporadic laughs from a talented cast.
Don Scardino is an actor-turned-director who has had a tremendous career in television over the years. While this is not his first feature, its easily his biggest, and one of the ways I think the film fails is in creating a persuasive world for Burt Wonderstone and the other characters. It's hard to make Vegas more gaudy or more ridiculous than it already is, and Scardino's Vegas feels oddly muted for a film about this subject matter. The script by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley sets up Burt as a young boy in the opening scene, terrorized by bullies and told that no one will ever like him. He meets another young misfit named Anton and they decide to become a magician team. That's where the film jumps forward to today, and we see Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) onstage, going through the motions of their giant Vegas show for what must be the 5000th time. Whatever joy it once held for them is long gone, and Burt in particular is a monstrous asshole who uses the show as an excuse to sleep with a new woman every night in his giant penthouse suite.
While I like it when actors screw around with their established onscreen identities, I'm not sure I ever really want to watch Carell play an unmitigated piece of shit for the first half of a movie again. Burt Wonderstone is so profoundly unlikeable, such an aggressive jerk to his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his partner Anton that there is no reason to invest his his success. When he finds his longtime contract at Bally's threatened by rising star Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), he isn't sure how to respond. Gray is pretty much directly built from pieces of both David Blaine and Kriss Angel, and he bills himself as the "mind rapist." His stunts consist of things like holding his eyes open for a week straight or not going pee for ten days, and we're shown several times how he is rapidly becoming a hot ticket while Burt and Anton have evidently reached the end of their shelf life.
There is an eventual effort to make Burt into a more rounded character, but it takes so long to get to that point that it feels false, mechanically motivated when it finally happens instead of something that he reaches organically as a character. Olivia Wilde's character is supposed to be one part of what eventually spurs Burt to change, with Alan Arkin's Rance Holloway serving as the other part. Holloway was the magician whose work first convinced Burt and Anton to pursue a career in magic, and when Burt is eventually reduced to doing card tricks in the dayroom at an elderly care facility, he meets Rance. There are a few moments where something genuine happens between Rance and Burt, and in those moments, you get a glimpse of the much better movie that this could have been. The same is true in the few truly great moments between Carrey and Carell. The idea of this new magic that slowly tries to destroy the old magic… potent stuff for either comedy or drama, but it feels like "Wonderstone" never figures out which one to play. And as much as I find Carell's extreme dickishness off-putting in the first hour, I find the ending of the film confusing and a little disturbing. I'm still not sure what happens with Arkin's character or why, and the "big trick" that Burt and Anton design to win back their casino showroom slot is basically a class-A felony committed on 1000 people at a time. It's a really strange way to supposedly triumph, and feels like a joke that might have worked on the page but that becomes vaguely monstrous when you actually see it play out.
Don't get me wrong… with a cast this good, there are certainly parts of the film that entertain. There are some big laughs. And even the trick that disturbs me at the end yields some laughs as the credits to the film play. But in some ways, the good things in the film are more frustrating because the film never finds a way to tie it all together, thematically or tonally. That would have been a magic trick worth applauding if they had.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" premiered tonight as the opening film of the SXSW film festival, and opens everywhere March 15th.
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