22nd Jul2013

‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig | Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis | Directed by Don Scardino


Of all the genres the hardest one by far to critique is comedy. With genres like drama, action, and suspense there is a stable of universality to them where we can recognize certain distinct qualities that make them great. When it comes to comedy the bottom line is typically—is it funny—which is where the subjectivity lays.  What one person finds funny someone else may find mind-numbingly offensive. Just think there was an actual time and place when people thought Pauly Shore was a legit comedian. On the other hand there are certain uniform factors comedies need to be successful. When looking at a film like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone it is not hard to determine it fails on a multitude of levels. Having pedestrian characters, uninspired jokes, and an inability to take advantage of one impressively well-rounded cast makes The Incredible Burt Wonderstone one miss fire of a magic trick.

Personally this film has a recipe that really wets my appetite.  Combining actors like Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, and Alan Arkin makes me primed for laughter. My anticipation quickly transformed into dissatisfaction as my search for laughter yielded very little results. In the film Steve Carell plays Burt Wonderstone a Las Vegas magician who has ruled the world of magic for years. With the aid of his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) he has grown to become quite an icon. Things begin to falter when street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) begins to change the way people view magic. Wonderstone, who has a narcissistic ideology that knows no bounds, refuses to see Gray as any sort of threat. Gray’s fame and notoriety begin to grow causing Wonderstone to become less and less relevant. Wonderstone’s stubbornness leads him to lose his job and the very few friendships he has. With no place to go he is forced to reconsider the man he has become and reconnect with the magician he once dreamt of being.

Looking at the concept of the film it is hard not to wonder if it was made ten years too late. Developing a narrative based on the rivalry of street and show magicians would be like doing a movie based on the battle between HD DVD and Blu Ray for home media supremacy. That battle has long been decided. Here it causes the film to cover material that has already been well explored. Perhaps if it provided a more ‘inside baseball’ look into this world we could have received a different insight into this dilemma. Instead it approaches the topic only at its most basic service level. Minus a depressing magician’s bar and a few cameos from famous magicians it never takes advantage of its setting. Our peek behind the curtain was very brief and full of disappointment. These characters were meant to be gigantic worldwide sensations. Limiting the scope to such a minute level made them appear like hotel lounge acts.

Part of the reason can be contributed to our main protagonist.  Wonderstone as a character commits two of the biggest sins. First he is a self-absorbed shrill of a person, but more importantly he is not very interesting. Some may look at having an unlikeable hero as an impossible hurdle to get across, but films are full of disparaging people we can still route for. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day for example is not the most ideal citizen. However he is at least charismatic in his deplorable behavior. Steve Carell has placed less than stellar characters, like Michael Scott in the TV series The Office, but Wonderstone imbibes any form of likeability from Carell and replaces it with a barren  wasteland of a personality. They attempt to make him into a womanizer but it never really works. Shinny spandex and a  sharp haircut still can’t make him into a sensational sex-symbol. To be fair Carell wasn’t entirely void of laughter. When Wonderstone is at his lowest he is forced to leave the lavish lifestyle he once knew, and gets placed back into the real world for the first time in decades. The fish-out-of-water aspects where some of the few glimpses of the Carell we know and love. Watching his pathetical endeavor to keep his magic show going long after his partner leaves is one particularly strong facet.

Also the interplay between Carell and Carrey had its moments. While it wasn’t nearly as strong as it could have been, parts like their magic showoff at a kids birthday party provided some intrigue. Carrey also makes sure to bring his A-Game as this amalgamation of David Blane and Chris Angle. Carrey isn’t necessarily doing anything he hasn’t done before, but this return to form is one of the best things he has done in awhile. Though he is not in the film for very long, he at least does a lot with his limited screen time. Part of the reason he is not on screen much is the endless amount of undeveloped subplots. This quagmire of storytelling became murkier when it tried to shoehorn in a love story between Wonderstone and his assistant played by Olivia Munn.  The dilapidated structure the story was built upon implodes within itself. Their relationship made little sense to either of their arcs. Not helping matters was their utter lack of chemistry.  Of course it struggled to tie everything into a nice little bow, yet even bringing the reinforcements of Alan Arkin did not aid matters much. Sure Arkin brought his famous satirical personality; nonetheless he was just another example of a misused asset.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone commits the biggest sin a comedy can make. It simply is not funny. Considering the talent involved this should be destined to be a surefire hit. As we know great casts don’t guarantee success. This may go down as Exhibit-A of that fact.  Mediocre characters and a pedestrian script cause some of the funniest people in show business today to look like complete rubes. Those who search long and hard enough may find a chuckle or two, however most fans will become disillusioned by its incapability to formulate any type of sustainable laughter. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has quickly become one of the biggest misfires of the year thus far.

*  1.5/5

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 29th.


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