There once was a time when magicians were a spectacle unto themselves. I imagine back to when Harry Houdini was alive, and I think about the acts of “magic” that he performed. Were they magic at all? Were they even illusions? They were more like stunts. Yet, these death defying escapes were still fascinating. Fast forward to my lifetime, and there was the one and only David Copperfield who made being a magician the equivalent of being a rock star. The family would gather around the television as Copperfield would make an airplane disappear. It was great fun. Recently, magicians have become more or less street performers and stunt men with elements of card tricks and illusions, like Chriss Angel. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a fictional take on the history of these magicians from the flashy Las Vegas shows to the “freaks” in the street. It touches on our fascination with magic, and our inner child telling us to believe things we know are not real.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are childhood friends that escape their unpopular youth by becoming world famous magicians. They have a hugely popular Las Vegas magic show, but you quickly see that performing the same acts (like “The Burt Locker”) night after night are taking a toll on their friendship and careers. Both Carell and Buscemi work extremely well together, but Carell is at the top of his game here. I was getting a little sick of Carell always playing the same character. He’s a lot different as Burt Wonderstone. He’s kind of a dick, he beds different women every night, and he’s not very eager to give up his shiny costumes and dwindling fame any time soon, whatever the cost may be.
Jim Carrey, who is in the best shape of his life in the film, plays Steve “The Brain Rapist” Gray. Gray represents the new wave of magicians with no flashy costumes who perform physically demanding and sometimes damaging stunts. It’s obviously a take on Chriss Angel, but the entire character is just out in left field. I don’t know if Carrey’s commitment to acting will ever be as appreciated as it should be. In a very intentional way, Carrey’s character is always out of place among the other magicians.
Alan Arkin as Rance Holloway is once again showing his brilliance. Rance is an aging magician who, much like Burt Wonderstone, watched his fame disappear in a “poof”. Rance was Burt’s inspiration for becoming a magic man when he was a child. Arkin’s chemistry with Carell is what really makes his tough love one-liners so great. He really stretches a small role into a very memorable one. Olivia Wilde is also very good as the reluctant magician’s assistant Jane. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by Jay Mohr, James Gandolfini, and Brad Garrett.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a very solid comedy, with a good and original story. Those two things don’t always go hand in hand. I would not use the word hilarious with the film. It’s not a laugh-a-minute type of comedy, but it provides great fun and you will get some hard laughs. Once you settle into the tone, you should realize it’s not slapstick as much as character driven. I do wish that there would have been more focus on the magic tricks. I know learning magic is a lifetime journey and not something you can pick up in the time it takes to prepare for a movie. That part always felt sort of rushed. I just would have liked a little more in that department. Not a huge knock on the film, but if I had one that’s it.
Comedy is so subjective that what I think is funny isn’t necessarily what you will think is funny. What we can all agree on is a solid story. I think The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will be a comedy where you will either love it or stop in the middle, but it’s going to be difficult to hate. Director Don Scardino (30 Rock) has done a great job of developing so many characters in a short time period, and it’s probably a testament to his extensive television experience. Screenwriters Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses) look to be building a solid comedy writing team. Fans of anyone in the cast will not be disappointed, as everyone is playing off of one another. They say it in the film and I think it holds true, but magic is believing in something you know isn’t real. The same is true for the movies we watch. So, sit back and be entertained.