Going into The Incredible Burt Wonderstone I didn’t expect too much. At first glance it looks like a film that would have been more relevant five or ten years ago when televised street magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel were more prevalent, but watching these parodies of former magicians I realized that the film is not hampered by the past instead attempting to craft a story that blends the new and old school.
Now with its splendidly talented cast, fresh premise, and new vs. old thematic undertones, is The Incredible Burt Wonderstone incredible, wonderful, marvelous, amazing, or any one of those adjectives? Turns out the answer is a bit more Gray.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Director: Don Scardino
Release Date: March 15, 2013
Burt Wonderstone is about the young Albert, a young, bullied kid with an absentee mother who gets the Rance Holloway Magic Kit for his birthday. From there he meets Anthony, another bullied kid who shares Albert’s love of magic. Years later, the two formed the Las Vegas act The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Alton Marvelton. But over the years, Burt (Steve Carrell) has grown tired of his act and has turned into a jerk. Then Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), the crazy street performer with a TV show, threatens their show which in turn breaks up Burt and Alton’s (Steve Buscemi) friendship. Now a hasbeen, Burt must regain his love of magic and reclaim fame.
As you can probably garner from the plot synopsis, this is a film you’ve seen numerous times. Although the premise is new (magicians? So wacky!), as the film carries on you can most likely predict the story beats as it moves forward. Don’t get me wrong though. Even if the story is predictable, the film is still far from boring. There are numerous occasions in Wonderstone that are full of inspiration (especially in the product placement. I have never laughed more at a Bounty paper towel plug than I did in Wonderstone!). In fact at some instances, the film plays with that predictability. For example, the opening of the film gets one of the biggest laughs because of its flipped expectations. Given the mystical and old-fashioned nature of the credits (the font is reminiscent of Cheers, is accompanied with a calm piano, and the title credits *poofs* away with smoke), its oddly cynical opening is a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately after several opening minutes of charming child actors filled with wonder, the film hits a wall. It somehow loses that charming quality for a good duration of the film. If this was thematically intentional (as Burt needs to rediscover his love of magic, so the moments without that love would feel more out of place and unnatural) then kudos, but as it is, the narrative’s pace slows down to a regrettable degree. However when Jim Carrey’s Gray and Alan Arkin’s Rance are introduced, and the film’s overall tone shoots for the ridiculous, then the big laughs kick in.
With pacing an early issue, it makes a lot of the film’s “just because” (we’re going to add this just because) decisions all the more noticeable. Olivia Wilde’s Nicole Jane is meant to serve as Burt’s love interest. She gets a slim character (meant to initially serve as a parallel to Burt and Rance’s idol/fan relationship), but her inclusion and her love story is unnecessary. It’s forced in unnaturally and the film would have benefited from the 20-25 minute cuts that her story bogs down. If the film focused more on Burt and Anton’s “magical friendship” (which is the crux of the entire film, and gives way to some of the film’s more inspired moments), then it would have been a stronger story overall. In fact, her contributions to the film’s climax are slim to none.
With all of that said, the film is saved by the comedic strength of its cast. In some cases, the faults of the film can be completely forgiven thanks to the laughs. Carell and Buscemi can play the heck out of pathetic individuals. Actually one of Burt’s inspired characterizations is Carell’s whimper. There are times where he breaks down in tears or just makes mouth noises and I couldn’t stop laughing. Anton is basically Burt’s “Robin” and Buscemi uses that for some hilariously awkward moments. Alan Arkin as Rance Holloway is more give or take, but his interactions with Carell are promising. They need to work together more.
For Jim Carrey, I need an entire paragraph. One of the greatest things in Wonderstone is its use of physical comedy (the final minutes of the film presents some of the best slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years), and the marriage of Carrey and physicality equals gold every time. Carrey steals the show as Steve Gray, an exaggerated amalgamation of David Blaine and Criss Angel (instead of “Mind Freak,” Gray’s TV show is “Brain Rapist”). And those exaggerations lead to the film’s ridiculous parody of later 90s-early 00’s street magic and stunts (for example, Gray drills a hole through his skull. Yup). But that’s where Wonderstone gets weird.
Now this isn’t exactly a criticism of the film, but Wonderstone has a confusing thematic message. As mentioned earlier Wonderstone attempts to be a “new vs old” type of film, but since neither of the two schools presented in the film are “new,” the thematic message ends up washing out. Fortunately, the film reaches a happy medium as it happily becomes a tribute to the magic and hope of the past while presenting a new forward way of thinking. Sort of an “old dog, new tricks” thing.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may not be incredible due to its predictability and narrative hangups, but it certainly reaches that “wonderful” status. If you’re willing to sit through a story you’ve heard before, you’ll find that Wonderstone is a magically humorous film filled with short bursts of inspiration.