Does the magician turf war comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone entertain, or does it perform an early vanishing act?
The flashback comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone goes far beyond telling a tale of magicians competing for Vegas glory: it's a film that could have been made 20 years ago, a fact which might put off audiences who've been trained to accept lesser quality. In our age of raunch, nudity, and an almost-anything-goes kind of approach, things have gotten a bit...well...predictable. One can only see so many nude male body parts on a screen, or be witness to yet another sexual-religious reference before those and the dozens of other low-brow employments (with only the most basic storytelling included) become boring as well. Thus it's nice to see when a film can be funny, well-cast, AND tell a decent story without needing to settle for something beneath itself.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, 40 Year Old Virgin) and his long-time friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buschemi, The Big Lebowski) have been Vegas standards for the past decade. Tormented in their 80's youths by bullies and rejected by society, the two learn to perform magic after Burt's latchkey mother gives him a magician's set for his birthday. Packed inside the box is a tape of the magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin, Argo) who makes an instant impression on the kids. As the years go by, stardom sees Anton and Burt perform to packed crowds every evening, filling their wallets and nursing their fragile egos. Unfortunately, complacency soon sets in for Wonderstone, who's more interested in sleeping with his female audience members than innovating his show, frustrating Anton and hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, The Sopranos). Their new assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde, Tron: Legacy) is an aspiring magician herself, but Burt only sees her body and seeks ways to land her.
At the same time, street magician/endurance performer Steve Grey (Jim Carrey, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) seeks to take over Wonderstone's turf with his over-the-top masocistic stunts including sleeping on hot coals and cutting his face. But Doug sees the performer as something fresh and new, while Wonderstone's diminishing crowds force Anton to come up with a new stunt. When that goes horribly wrong, the team splits up, leaving Wonderstone homeless and without his best friend. Faced with a future of performances in front of the elderly, Burt comes face to face with his childhood hero Holloway, who teaches the hair-sprayed diva the real meaning of magic. Together, the duo reunite with Anton and Jane to produce their biggest stunt yet: making an entire audience disappear.
Veteran television director Don Scardino applies a simple plan to his film - let the actors sell the script by Horrible Bosses writer Jonathon Goldstein. Scardino gives Carell and Carey a lot of room to roam while keeping them focused on those parts of comedy they do best; the result is a collective return to old comedic roots, with Carell playing pitch-perfect arrogance and Carey supplying all the imposing physical comedy one actor can muster. Wilde isn't given much to do, but we'll let that pass due to her amazing screen presence (yes, she's hot), and Buschemi's straight man is enjoyable for the short time we see him. Frankly, another 10 minutes of him in Act 3 wouldn't have hurt. Gandolfini is equally good as the hotel owner/dad who can't remember the age of his own son. But in the end, it's the performance of Arkin that seals the deal. I'm continually amazed by how much of a scene stealer he is, lighting up the screen every time Scardino gets him in. It's a deep cast who brings the right combination of comedy and can also bring a little dramatics when necessary. In many ways, Wonderstone proves that good comedy trumps raunch almost every time; the question is, will moviegoers agree?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has some truly funny moments, some of which might go down as the best of 2013. Beyond that, its basic premise of arrogance, lesson-learning, and redemption has been seen before. But along with a healthy dose of sentimentality, that's the reason why it works. Its ability to stay in the Spring theater rotation will be determined entirely upon whether audiences believe that there's still a place in their wallets for such a mix. If that answer is a positive, Wonderstone could see a long a successful run; a negative response, and it's a quick disappearing act and perhaps another nail in the coffin for Clean Comedy. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is rated PG-13 for sexual situations and language and has a runtime of 100 minutes.
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