Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I’m going to cheat a little, and review a movie that’s not really a genre movie. Well, as far as I’m concerned it is, because the movie’s about magic—and many fans are very much interested in magic—and also because the underlying theme of the movie is very much “sense of wonder,” which is what SF is all about, right? This movie has gotten a bum rap, only scoring something like 5.9 on IMDB, and only about 35% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi)
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi)

Well, there are almost no genital, fart, poop or pee jokes in the movie. Maybe that’s why the audiences didn’t find it funny enough. (Do I sound grouchy? Darned right—I think today’s “comedies” rely entirely too much on bodily functions as “humour.”) The humour is situational and character-driven. (Some of it is awfully black, however—most of Jim Carrey’s stuff is kind of unpleasant, but still in character.) Okay, here’s a movie—a comedy—with the following cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi (not really known for humorous roles), Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini (in what has to have been his last movie).

Given that cast, my expectations were high. I was looking forward to some “magic”—I don’t care whether it’s stage or close-up magic; I’ve watched every magic show I’ve had the chance to see. I’ve even been on stage with Harry Blackstone, Jr., as a volunteer. I know how most tricks and illusions are performed, even though I’m not a performer myself. And this movie—although somewhat predictable plotwise—has some of that magic.

Briefly, the plot is this: Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is ignored by his parents and ostracized by his classmates in grade school; his mother leaves him a cake on his birthday. A box of cake mix. But she also left him a magic kit as a birthday present, and Burt encounters Rance Holloway (through the magic of Betamax) for the first time. He meets Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), and they begin a “magical friendship” that lasts for the next 20 years or so; they become partners in a stage show and wind up headlining in Vegas at a casino theatre run by Doug Munny (James Gandolfini).

For at least five years, they rake in the bucks with their big stage show, and Burt’s ego grows in proportion to their fame. Besides the money, he uses his fame to bed their assistants, whom he all calls “Nicole,” and apparently goes through about one a week or so. Tensions rise between him and Anton, however—Burt has been doing this so long he’s lost that sense of wonder and awe that drove him to be a magician; and he performs their show by rote, not really caring if it comes off well or not. Anton is getting really fed up with Burt’s ego, attitude and lackluster performance. Meanwhile, outside the comfy confines of their theatre, a challenge to their throne is rising.

Steve Gray (Jim Carrey)
Steve Gray (Jim Carrey)

Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who’s a combination David Blaine and Criss Angel, is performing stunts so outrageous and shocking that he’s pulling audiences away from the theatre. Even though Burt tells Doug that Gray’s not a magician—nothing he’s doing is really connected with magic in any way. Finally, Burt and Anton try to bring back the audiences by performing a stunt of their own—the Hot Box—where they will spend a week in a plexiglas box suspended in full view of the crowds, with no food, no drink (and apparently no way to go to the bathroom—but I digress). Anton is fully prepared for this stunt, but Burt hasn’t even read the description of the box. Burt has a meltdown, and the partnership breaks up.

Burt attempts to carry on by himself, but since all his patter and routines are based on a two-person team, fails miserably, and is fired by Doug. Thrown out of his comfy hotel suite, with no money of his own—unlike Anton, he’s wasted all the money he made—Burt has to attempt to support himself by doing magic to entertain the “old folks” at a Las Vegas Home for retired performers of various kinds.

At the Home, while rediscovering what a challenge it is to do magic that entertains, he meets his boyhood idol, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Meanwhile, Steve Gray is now going to be the featured entertainer at Doug’s new eponymous casino, which is just being completed.

You know the rest of the story; that’s the predictable part—again, I won’t give spoilers, because I know many people don’t like them—but it’s not whether Burt and Anton get back together, it’s not whether Steve Gray gets his comeuppance, it’s not even whether their last “Nicole,” (Burt never did call her by her proper name, which was Jane) becomes a part of their act again. It’s how all this happens that’s the charming part.

I was not bored—in fact, although I’ve watched a lot of Criss Angel and that crowd, I was highly amused at Jim Carrey’s portrayal of a street magician who did stupid stunts that could, and did, injure him. I thought Alan Arkin was very good; I thought Olivia Wilde (as Jane) was funny and believable as a magician’s assistant, and I enjoyed Jay Mohr’s bits as a not-very-good magician.

Jane/"Nicole" (Olivia Wilde)
Jane/”Nicole” (Olivia Wilde)

Sometimes you just like to see things work out all right. Both I and my wife enjoyed this. No explosions (okay, one little bitty fireball), a few minor off-colour jokes (Jim Carrey had the biggest one, attempting to “hold his urine” for a week), and nothing that I’d really be ashamed to take a kid to see. It’s better than many, I can say. Recommended.


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