Love for a film can last long past the most recent viewing. Immediacy might be necessary without the critical mass that can carry a work of art into pop culture immortality, but once a motion picture passes out of the current consciousness and attains a status beyond relevance, it can transform into a beloved keepsake, dusted off every so often as a reminder of our fondness for its dated perfection. Cult hits and classics alike share occupancy in this pantheon—but in the modern era of film and technology’s wedded bliss, fandom of movies can also begin long before they grace the silver screen. Carefully timed announcements and tireless hype machines churn out the names of actors, directors and scripts designed to build momentum that will help the project grow legs at the box office and nest in the hearts—and wallets—of moviegoers. It sounds callous and coldhearted, and it can be. But it’s nowhere near as cynical as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
This was a movie that seemed like it had earned the buzz its cast and conceit had generated. Reuniting Steve Carell and Jim Carrey for the first time since Bruce Almighty, the idea of these two master comedians masquerading as outsized, egotistical Vegas magicians seemed like a gold mine from which no coal could possibly emerge. Add in the excellent supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde and Steve Buscemi, and the strength of the vehicle only seemed to grow. But the film itself quashes any such hope, primarily by way of a scattered sense of humor that falls flat amid a minefield of failed sight gags and lifeless writing. Carell tries mightily to make Burt Wonderstone earn his superlatives, but the character is muddled and bogged down by the indecision of whether to make the fading star a directionless buffoon or an insufferable narcissist. The always welcome Buscemi does his best to balance this duo—in fact, the few moments when his Anton Marvelton and Wonderstone brainstorm about magic tricks are among the few genuinely affecting parts of the film—but the material is too constrictive for even Houdini to escape.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the whole thing is that you really want to like the movie. This was supposed to be a showcase for the alpha dogs of humor, a wicked satire of magic, fame, and the nature of the beasts roaring about age and irrelevance. But for such a promising premise, it sure feels formulaic. Quite by accident, Wonderstone pulls some wicked sleight of hand and becomes a sad allegory for the state of modern comedy, with aging, expensive stars like Carrey finding themselves increasingly out of touch with their audience. And it is the man with the rubber face himself who becomes the bellwether for the charade—his strange, desperate choices continue to bewilder while the jokes that land are few and far between. His Steve Gray is a man so starved for an audience that he will mutilate himself just to keep the eyes focused on him a moment longer. His tattooed masochist is supposed to evoke Criss Angel, a reference that would have been much more topical five years ago, and now feels not only stale but reaching for the kind of laughs and approval that were in much greater supply for Carrey in the 1990s.
Aside from the bombastic caricatures from Carrey and Carell, there’s also a rote redemption story in here somewhere. But the promising setup reveals minimal magic, either on the stage or behind the scenes. While it’s always nice to see Olivia Wilde (no matter what manner of chauvinist chicanery she’s resisting), the expected sparks between her and Wonderstone are borderline creepy, because the over-tanned, over-the-hill magician has no business as the placeholder in this indulgent fantasy. Magic may be a potentially great source for satire and comedy, but it can also be an art that creates wonder and belief out of thin air. That’s in short supply here—in fact, the best part of magic seen in the theater came from the trailer for Now You See Me. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has the opposite effect, mainly because it has nothing positive to say. Alan Arkin’s weary sarcasm shouldn’t be the high point for hope in a film aiming for big laughs among grand illusions. The bleak underpinnings of the plot tell us that children are pawns, women are prizes, and all that matters is masculine competition. It’s no wonder that Wonderstone makes the laughs disappear—the film is so concerned with nailing its tricks that it forgets to captivate its audience.
Director: Don Scardino
Writer: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey
Release Date: Mar. 15, 2013