The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (review)

Incredible Burt Wonderstone green light Steve Buscemi Steve Carell

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

God help me, I’m not even sure I can remember why, only a few days after the fact, I laughed so damn hard at The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Which is a terrible position for me to be in because on its face, this is the sort of movie — an overblown studio comedy — that usually makes me want to cry and maybe even run screaming from the theater to escape it. And yet, I haven’t laughed so much — out loud — at the movies since I can’t remember when. I need to be able to explain why this was the case, and here I can barely read my notes, I was shaking so hard as I was trying to write them.

It’s pretty clear, even from my fun-befuddled perspective, that part of the reason why this just works is because where other similar films start from a place of turning ordinary people into cartoons, and then awkwardly and unconvincingly back again, Wonderstone starts with cartoons and pretty much dispenses with any attempt to turn them into real people. It’s Vegas, baby, and the human Looney Tunes that are the likes of Siegfried and Roy and Criss Angel… except here they’re the partnership of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell: Hope Springs, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi: On the Road, Grown Ups) and the fame spoiler Steve Gray (Jim Carrey [A Christmas Carol, I Love You Phillip Morris], who is especially good here, playing it more dark than comic), who is honing in on their magical celebrity mojo. Instead of taking something prosaic and trying its darnedest to make it ridiculous, Wonderstone takes things that are ridiculous — cheesy stage illusionists and “freaks” who want to blow your mind and the goofy cheap attention-whoring glitz in which they wallow — and just lets them be their own sort of ridiculous, with hardly any inflating required at all.

Stage magic mostly isn’t the target of the nonsense here (written by, among others, Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who also wrote the pretty-funny-for-a-Hollywood-comedy Horrible Bosses). Fame is what comes under its very silly withering glance, and the vagaries that inevitably come with fame. Mostly it’s about how fleeting fame can be, a motif that ramps up in the opening moments of the film, when Burt and Anton’s stage assistant, “Jane,” is replaced midshow by a new “Jane” (Olivia Wilde: In Time, Cowboys & Aliens) with no one in the audience catching on, and extends to Burt’s encounter with his childhood conjuror hero, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin: Argo, City Island), now long since retired from show biz but still full of magical beans, both metaphorically and literally.

The pathos of Rance’s sadness now that he’s out of the spotlight, and the similar threat looming over Burt — now that he and Anton have “broken up” and Steve Gray’s newfangled schtick seems to be more enticing to audiences — works because the film doesn’t belabor it. Director Don Scardino, a TV veteran, all but ignores it, in fact, with the same sort of singleminded denial that Burt and Rance share. They’re legends in their own mind! (Okay, not only in their own minds. One wickedly funny scene sketches out how Burt’s renown improves his chances of getting a lady fan into bed.) Unlike 99 percent of what passes for comedy in Hollywood at the moment, Wonderstone is able to maintain its sense of ridiculousness throughout, and utterly fails — thank goodness and alakazam! — to descend into gloopy sentiment in the last 20 minutes. And while it pokes a ton of fun at almost everyone onscreen, it’s never cruel or meanspirited. This isn’t a humiliation comedy, or at least not one in which we’re invited to laugh at the characters as they’re being humiliated merely because they’re hapless saps who don’t deserve abuse yet who are nevertheless subjected to it for our ostensible amusement. Instead, the (occasional) victims are victimized by nothing but their own arrogance, and probably do deserve the little bit of comeuppance they’re getting.

Every single butt of a joke here is his own worst enemy who has brought it down on himself, and to see such characters getting a bit of a smack is fun, when done right. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone does it right.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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