“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek
Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor, fleeting drug content and dangerous stunts
Comic talents unite for an amusing poke at showcase magicians
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Las Vegas magic acts — with their glitzy, overwrought buffoonery — are ripe for parody, and director Don Scardino attacks this subculture with verve, in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
Armed with a witty script that hits most of the right notes, Scardino demonstrates his own gift for prestidigitation, by shaping a gaggle of scene-stealing camera hogs into a well-balanced ensemble comedy troupe. That’s no small thing, when dealing with the likes of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey, any one of whom could ruin a project by being too uninhibited … and all have done so, in the past (in Carrey’s case, rather frequently).
Not this time. Scardino keeps his stars on point while also drawing deft supporting performances from Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini and Olivia Wilde. The latter, in particular, demonstrates an unexpected talent for comic timing that was nowhere to be seen in her token hottie roles in “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” Given her work here, Wilde actually may have an acting career in her future.
The biggest miracle, though, is that this film’s script manages to stay reasonably well focused — and dead-on perceptive, as it skewers Vegas’ wretched excess — despite being a committee affair from four writers: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Chad Kultgen and Tyler Mitchell.
Gentlemen, my black top hat’s off to you.
The story opens with a brief prologue in the early 1980s, as latchkey kid Burt (Mason Cook) celebrates a birthday by himself, forced by his working mother’s absence to bake his own cake (a droll and endearing touch that hints of great things to come). His one present: a celebrity magic set that will evoke strong memories from viewers who remember being a kid back in that era, when Marshall Brodien — as Wizzo the Wizard —hawked his “TV Magic Kit” of “mystifying tricks” on syndicated stations.
In this case, young Burt is awestruck by the kit’s videotape, wherein tuxedo-garbed Rance Holloway (Arkin) promises that magic can change one’s life. Burt, enchanted, starts pulling scarves out of thin air; his school time antics attract the attention of the similarly geeky — and bullied — Anton (Luke Vanek). The two become fast friends, energized by a desire to invent newer, fresher and ever more amazing tricks.
Flash-forward a couple of decades, as Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have become hot newcomers on the Vegas stage magic scene. Their enthusiasm and crowd-pleasing skills draw the attention of Bally’s mogul Doug Munny (Gandolfini), who grants them a headlining showroom.
Another 10-year leap to the present day, and things have turned sour. Oh, sure, Burt and Anton still pack the house, but the opulent illusions have become rote — repeated day after day, week after week, year after year — and the staunch friendship has frayed.
Actually, it has torn to shreds, thanks to Burt’s insufferably egotistical behavior. Having decided that he’s the entire act — not to mention God’s gift to women — Burt has become a grotesque parody of himself. Magic no longer matters, nor does the “sense of wonder” that sparked his own youthful enthusiasm, so many years ago.
All this is observed with great sadness by Jane (Wilde), a backstage assistant dragged before the crowd one evening, to replace yet another nubile blonde unwilling to tolerate Burt’s behavior any longer. Jane also loves magic — the proper way, hence her presence on the staff — but Burt couldn’t care less. To him, she’s just another potential score.
Crisis erupts with the flamboyant, camera-hogging arrival of Steve Gray (Carrey), an arrogant, weirdly theatrical “guerilla magician” very much in the mold of David Blaine and Criss Angel. Gray’s gory, stunt-laden shtick is more ghastly circus sideshow than genuine magic, but he definitely knows how to win and control a crowd. And that, to Munny, spells money.
Wonderstone isn’t capable of modifying his moldy act; more to the point, he rejects the need to do so. A freak such as Steve Gray couldn’t possibly be the next best thing.
When the dust settles, Wonderstone is alone, unemployed and living in a shabby hotel room. And wondering how it all went wrong.
Scardino capably navigates this delectable premise while savagely skewering its many deserving targets. Costume designer Dayna Pink outfits Wonderstone in the hilariously tacky, chest-baring garb with which we’ve long associated Siegfried & Roy; Burt and Anton’s deliberately corny, story-driven act mostly wastes time while occasionally pausing for the sort of big-big-big illusions beloved by Lance Burton and David Copperfield. (The latter briefly appears in a droll cameo.)
The elevator to Burt’s penthouse home is large enough to be the suite itself, and when Munny embraces his own grand plan to open a new casino, he naturally names it after himself, grinning broadly from a multi-story video screen that beckons passersby to enter.
Gray’s self-abusing, over-the-top stunts are funny because — as Criss Angel’s fans know — they’re not all that exaggerated; Carrey, in turn, nails the lofty attitude and weirdly egotistical patter of such an individual. Indeed, this is by far the best performance Carrey has given in years, and it’s nice to see him back to form.
His penetrating, ferociously manic gaze never has been put to better use.
But the ripe satire, so well set up and delivered, wouldn’t have nearly the bite without the genuine heart that rides alongside. Buscemi’s Anton is a gentle guy who has put up with a lot over the years, and can’t understand how his longtime “best friend” could treat him so badly. Carrey’s Gray, at the other end of the spectrum, is a nasty piece of work: a smug, vicious opportunist who smells blood in the water, and wants to humiliate Wonderstone even more than he wants his own headlining career.
Carell swans his way through Wonderstone’s puffed-up behavior, somehow believing that every emotional failing — every thoughtless, self-centered act or gesture — somehow is a virtue. Wonderstone is the one character who might be too broad at times, notably when he and Marvelton attempt their own street stunt, but Scardino mostly remains on the right side of that razor’s edge separating astute humor from merely stupid slapstick.
More to the point, Carell has the range to switch from broad overstatement to softer pathos; we’ve seen the latter in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Dan in Real Life.” Carell makes us believe that Wonderstone is worth saving.
Arkin further spices the brew, when a much older Rance Holloway pops up in the third act, as a resident in a retirement home for Vegas performers. This is roughly when the story shifts tone, blossoming into an underdog redemption saga with clearly defined heroes and villains.
Holloway’s insistence on the “purity” of magic, particularly close-up magic, obviously requires a certain amount of same in this film. Many (most?) of the illusions are assisted by camera trickery and CGI sweetening, but we are blessed with a few moments of coin/card manipulation and authentic sleight-of-hand. I particularly enjoyed the golf ball routine that Holloway and Wonderstone share with the retirement home residents.
With so many disparate elements, all sorts of things could have gone wrong en route to the finished film … but Scardino pulls it off, with a warm, funny and genuinely entertaining result. And that, too, is quite a trick.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com