Friday, March 15, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) - Movie Review

Is it too late for Steve Carell to go back to The Office for the series finale?

It's not that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a career killer, but it's the kind of film where even on paper it wasn't very strong idea with a really small margin for error.  If you don't knock it out of the park, then you're going to have really mediocre film on your hands.

We meet Burt as a small, bullied kid.  You immediately feel for him when he gets beaten up in front of his own house on his birthday.  His mother, whom we never meet (which seemed like a missed opportunity for a good, gag-casting), gives him a magician's starter kit featuring an old school magician, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). This part of the film I thought was amusing as there were a few subtle 80's references that made me laugh.  Burt dives headfirst into learning magic, but it hasn't made him any more popular at school.  He befriends another outcast kid, Anton, and they decide to become a magic team.  As far as the story goes, this as actually the strongest part, as kids were pretty sympathetic and you understand why they became friends.

We fast forward several years, and Burt (Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) have become a successful Vegas magic show act.  Things are going well for a while, and they are making millions.  You see their cheesy, tired antics and it's kind of funny.  Performing magic is evolving though, and people aren't turning out for their shows anymore.  This is mainly due to the popularity of street magician Steve Gray "The Brain Rapist" (Jim Carrey).

I guess the good news is there are some silly laughs from time to time.  Unfortunately, the laughs are more of the polite chuckle variety, with no real gut-busting moments.  It's a shame, too, as there are many times you're watching Burt Wonderstone and wonder why it's so tame or how much funnier it would have been if they had taken a few of the bits in a different direction.  Nothing every really hits, so we're left with something that's mildly amusing, but a huge missed opportunity considering the cast.  It's also very forgettable.  One of the characteristics of any good comedy is quotability, and I can't recall a single line or gag that has that kind of impact.  I realize that it sometimes takes multiple viewings for something to really stick, but I don't think this is the kind of comedy that you're going to want to watch over and over.

I guess I'm a little disappointed considering the writing team of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are two-thirds of the team that wrote Horrible Bosses (maybe they really needed that last 1/3rd), and director Don Scardino has directed many episodes of 30 Rock.  You'd think the comedy would be the strongest point of the film.  I think one of the issues is that they went with a PG-13 rating, when a movie like this really needs to be R.  It's not that a PG or PG-13 movie can't be funny, but it can really limit the humor.

Even the story itself is pretty cliched for the kind of comedy it was.  You have the stubborn, out-of-touch star, unable to adapt and loses everything.  Then, the young upstart takes his place.  Finally, the star goes back to his roots, regains humility and comes back stronger with an updated approach.  You could have swapped out magic for any sport and it would have been the same movie.

I'm a big Steve Carell fan, but I thought his performance was all over the place.  I think you can attribute a lot of that to how his character was written and directed, but it don't think he was the best fit.  It was almost like he seemed uncomfortable at times, or maybe that's just how the performance made me feel.  The supporting cast I enjoyed more, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey in particular.  I've been on hard on Wilde in the past, but I think she worked really well playing it straight off Carell and I'd like to see her take on more roles like this.  I know Jim Carrey isn't everyone's cup of tea these days, but I though he was another smart casting and his style really suited his character (I also think he looks really good in the upcoming Kick-Ass sequel). Alan Arkin was good as well, and he's one person I wish had been in it a little more.  There are a few small cameos and smaller roles from comedic actors that you may get a kick out of, but it's not enough to get this over the hump.  I realized I haven't said anything about Steve Buscemi, but it's because he's actually not in it all that much.  It really focuses more on Burt Wonderstone, and the problem is that he's really just not that great of a character.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a dull comedy that just never really hits a good stride and plays it way too safe.  Even the great cast couldn't elevate this, and we're left with a very mediocre and forgettable movie.  It's a rental.  Perhaps we get an unrated version on DVD, so I'd say to hold out for that.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars


  1. A really good entertainer. I agree that Jim Carrey's magic acts where a bit too violent for a family movie, overall the movie succeeded in entertaining the entire group. The attempt at humour at times seems over-the-top but in a movie about entertainers, this is acceptable.

    1. I think that's the problem is that this shouldn't have been a family movie or had a broad appeal. I think comedies work best when you pick your audience and then go with it.