So, I found myself with a few hours to kill in a town with a pulse. As I always do in this situation, I shuffled to the multiplex. Hey- Oz is probably still showing, I thought. Or I could catch Danny Boyle’s well-reviewed Trance. After queueing up about 3 or four possible choices in my head, I got there to discover that only The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was showing and would be finished in my allotted time. Goddamn. Still, the film has a decent cast of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini so I decided to check it out. Urgh.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
I’m very wary of films that use superlatives in their titles. Not only does it smack of false advertising and I’m sure there’s someone in America right now trying to sue The Amazing Spider-Man for being sub-par, but film critics go for the low-hanging fruit every fucking time. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?- more like The Not-so-Incredible Burt BLUNDERstone, amirite?” Seriously, you make those shit Christmas cracker puns, I lose interest in your work. It could be the wittiest piece around with insights that change the way I think about films, but if you start with something like that, I check out. They’re not clever and definitely not funny. Why the hell are people still using them?
“Nobody cares enough about this film to put any quotes up on IMDB- so this is awkward…”
The premise is solid. Vegas magician Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) are finding out that their particular brand on glitzy showmanship is being undercut by edgy street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Soon, attendance starts dwindling and Wonderstone finds himself unable to maintain his gaudy Vegas suite lifestyle and will have to relearn the basics of magic with the help of childhood icon Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) if he’s got any hope of reclaiming his showbiz lifestyle and impressing hotel magnate Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). The idea of a campy Siegfried & Roy duo being upstaged by a Criss Angel/David Blaine character is a great, if not timely, concept. However, much like with the acting talent, it is squandered. The plot is so predictable and simple, I could have sketched it on a napkin when I saw the poster and have been completely right. Basically, it’s Talledega Nights, Anchorman or any other number of comedies released in the past 20 years. It’s one step behind the “got to do a fundraiser to save the building/worthy cause” plot in “The Complete Hack’s Guide to the Same Old Shit (foreword by Tim Burton)”. A successful man gets his riches taken away from him, has to learn the true spirit of the chosen field (magic in this case) and undergoes a personal transformation, usually whilst getting the girl as a reward and earns his place back on top the honest way. I don’t mind this too much as interesting things can be done with the narrative and a weak story can be overlooked in a comedy if the jokes are funny enough. Look at The Muppets. It has the most hackneyed plot imaginable but it plays around with the tropes and is packed with so much heart and humour that it’s forgiveable. Burt Wonderstone does not have any heart and has very little humour. The cast are all fine, but each of them is crying out for a better script and funnier jokes.
I try to go into films with an open mind. It’s tough sometimes, but doable. I wanted to like Burt Wonderstone. I have a massive soft spot for magic. If this was the Harry Potter universe, I would use my memory of opening up a Paul Daniels magic set on my birthday to conjure a Patronus. That or memories of my first love or whatever blah blah blah. I was completely on board with the film when it showed a young Burt opening up a magic set of his very own on his birthday. I instantly related. Trouble is, after this, the film spools out into an uninspired mess of broad-as-fuck humour. Mind you, it should be expected from the writers of the terrible, I-can’t-believe-people-actually-laughed-at-it Horrible Bosses and the upcoming Horrible Bosses 2, which I’m suuure is going to be a laugh riot. This film had four writers. Fucking four. What’s that saying? A camel is a horse designed by a committee? The sad thing is not one of them knows what a joke is.
Whilst most of the attention will undoubtedly be on Jim Carrey’s tattooed shirtless performance, I think due focus should go to Olivia Wilde. She’s great in everything she’s in and manages to do a lot with what is basically a trophy for Burt to win when he’s a decent enough human being. It’s no secret that female roles in comedies are usually crappy. They’re the eye-rolling foil to the man-children acting like douchebags. However, the character of Jane stunned me with how inconsequential she is. You could take her out of the film and nothing would change at all, apart from the audience maybe questioning Burt’s sexuality. In fact, much is made of Burt’s apparently legendary poon-houndism. He’s got a big ol’ case of the notgays. My guess is all the womanizing stuff was put in later because idiot test audiences started filling out questionnaires asking why the heavily made-up, coiffed, rather camp duo of Burt and Anton were “homos”. If it was an organic part of the too-many-hacks script, then that’s even worse. Burt Wonderstone is designed not to rock the boat and (male) characters are painted with big, broad brushstrokes. Steve Gray, for instance, is “evil” because his street magic is a bit extreme and may inspire kids to try his dangerous stunts. Illusion isn’t the dying art here, subtlety is.
“Then again, it saves me the effort of trawling through the terrible ‘jokes’ once more. Blessing in disguise, I guess.”
As I’ve said time and time again, it is not unreasonable to expect effort in these things. The “just a bit of fun” argument very rarely holds water. We should expect more from everything. Burt Wonderstone is a lazy, mercenary product tossed out to take advantage of the stupid and their shite senses of humour. It’s a tonal mess and the only time I laughed was in the final couple of minutes, which was at a gag that completely undoes and undermines the film’s finale and overall message. I was going to give the film two stars, but writing all this shit has made me realise how much it sucked. This is the embodiment of what’s wrong with modern comedy films. Broad cheap-seat exclusive humour and relying on star power and visuals to make up for void. Fuck this film.