The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – seven days later
[New Line Cinema]
Directed by Don Scardino
Written by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini & Jim Carrey
When I write up a review of a movie, I often do it over two days. I start the moment I get home from watching it, then leave it a day and see if my opinion has changed at all. I saw The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a week ago.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (people are already referring to it as simply, Burt Wonderstone, and I will do the same) is a bizarre movie. The problem is, it’s very difficult to explain how or why, which for the purposes of a review makes it infuriating. The closest example I can give is when a critic reviews a film with a hugely important twist-ending, and they are unable to mention it directly. Whereas they are forced to tiptoe their way around what makes the film different out of artistic courtesy, I am forced to do so here out of sheer ignorance. In some ways I didn’t ‘get’ the movie, and in other ways I’m worried that I’m over analyzing. Reviewing is hard.
Does that make it a bad movie? No! God, I wish! If it was bad I could just say that. But it’s not. It’s just weird. And not weird in a post-modern way like, say, I <3 Huckabees, or even weird in a surrealist way like Un Chien Andalou. It’s not even laughably awful in the vein of something like The Room. It’s just…it’s really weird, okay guys?
Albert Wiederstein has a pretty shitty life until he receives a magic kit for this birthday. Present via Betamax, star magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) teaches the young boy all the traditional magic kit favourites. Albert soon uses his magic to make friends with another loser – Anton Marvelton – and the two decide to enter a magical friendship together. Then the movie leaps a couple of decades and Albert is Steve Carrell and Anton is Steve Buscemi. They have a very successful magic show in Las Vegas which sells out every night, but Albert in particular seems to be growing tired of the routine. The two are also growing tired of one another. Through a cheap shoe-horn, the character of Jane/Nicole (Olivia Wilde) is introduced as a potential romantic interest/bringing back down to earther, and James Gandolfini is the money-grabbing buttmunch who runs the hotel. Later on Steve Gray (Jim Carey) appears as a new-era magician in the vein of Dynamo or Chris Angel, and shows how the golden age of sawing women in half and making people disappear is stale and dying. Anton and Albert split due to Albert’s ego, Jane and fate bring him back down to earth, Albert and Anton become friends again and (I shit you not) win a competition to get to be important magicians again.
The thing is, the story is awful and ridiculous and it forces me to at least try and delve into why this movie is so strange, but also not actually bad. I am only going to apologize for how poorly articulated my feelings about this are once, and that’s now – sorry. I’m also going to write it in one go, hopefully capturing my unfiltered feelings and opinions with clarity.
The Prestige was a great film about magicians. It was universally acclaimed and the acting, plot and effects were all top-class. More so, the integral lesson learnt about magic (the three stages of a trick – ending in the stage named ‘the Prestige’), served as a microcosm for the plot of the film itself. In Burt Wonderstone we are given similar lessons about magic, but the lessons are subtler and pay off in some much deeper ways.
Lesson One: Magicians are, in one way or another, creepy weirdos. Magic makes you a creepy weirdo.
Albert is rude, brash, egocentric and creepy. Anton is played by Steve Buscemi with blonde hair. Just imagine that. Someone said “Steve Buscemi doesn’t look weird enough. We want people MORE uncomfortable than they would normally be looking at Steve’s face”.
I kid, Steve, I kid. But dude, you got a weird face.
Speaking of faces, Jim Carey cuts his open with a knife in a magic trick in his first scene. Other magician weirdness: Jane/Nicole spends the whole film chasing after someone who has done nothing but insult and degrade her, and there is a small part magician who can’t take dates home or his tigers get jealous and mercilessly maul him.
The lesson is magic makes you a creepy weirdo, and this film IS a creepy weirdo.
Lesson Two: Magic isn’t about making people expect something, then giving them something else; it’s about actually giving them exactly what you promised.
In all honesty, that could be the tag-line for this movie. One of the earliest stage tricks we see performed involves Anton sealing Jane and Albert within a locker and sliding burning swords into it, only to then draw them out and open the door to reveal them unharmed. The trick? There isn’t one. They just breath in and the swords go everywhere except where they are. Steve Grey’s first trick featuring the aforementioned face cutting goes thusly: he gets a guy to pick a card, then taunts him into punching him in the face. His cheek swells up, he cuts it open with a knife, then draws out the folded up card drenched in blood. How he gets the card into his face is never revealed, but he DOES cut his face. It’s not magic, it’s a sleight of hand trick obscured by graphic self harm.
And that’s another thing this movie does. It is essentially the most formulaic of buddy comedies ever, only covered with a thin sheen of magic that makes you think it’s somehow different. One guy is hot-headed and overly passionate, the other is calm and a bit of a sap – they have a falling out and then it’s down to the level-headed eye-rolling woman (saying things like “Argh, you’re so self-absorbed, if you could just open your mind for one second you’d realize you two need each other!”) and the grizzled veteran (“sure I did THING…but that was a long time ago…I don’t do that no more! You’ve got the wrong guy!”) to get them back together. Need I remind you that they win a competition to reclaim their previous lifestyle? It’s a cop-out so convoluted that I can’t recall the last movie to do it with any sense of sincerity. Dodgeball, which came out nearly a decade ago, hung a lantern on how bad a plot device it was by having the prize money delivered in a chest with “Deus Ex Machina” embedded upon it.
The movie is entirely predictable from beginning to end; from five minutes in all the elements of the falling out and the recovery are arranged and ready to fall into place. Magic isn’t about wonder, it’s about cheating. It’s about putting something ever so slightly shiny in front of people’s eyes and convincing them that they want to believe it. They see the rabbit and because it’s a living thing, they’ll want to believe it came out the hat. You make the handkerchief colourful, that way its all the more exciting when it disappears. Likewise the assistant is beautiful. You sleep on a bed of burning hot coals because its disgusting and people want to feel that visceral reaction. Underneath it all though, whether it’s through simple hand-wavery, smoke and mirrors, or just sucking up the pain, the audience know you are cheating. They just don’t care.
And that’s why Burt Wonderstone is actually a pretty good movie. It’s helped by the fact that there are a ton of shitty comedies in cinemas at the moment, and it is not a film that will stand the test of time at all, but for £8 and two hours of your time, it’s really not a bad experience. There are almost no laugh out loud jokes, but there was a smile on my face the entire time, and a lot of that comes down to the performances. I want to look at Carrell’s and Carey’s especially, though the rest of the cast is more than capable.
Carrell gives the strangest performance of his life. The character of Albert is weird and shallow and he manages to do an about-heel-turn on everything he believes within an hour, but Carrell actually kind of sells it. He doesn’t do it by performing classically well; he does it by performing strangely. He talks in a disjointed, hollow way, almost like a SatNav with Steve Carrel’s voice in it. His eyes are dead and empty throughout the entirety of the movie, regardless of how happy or sad he is. His walk, his movements, his stance – all feel like a bad impression of somebody I’ve never even seen. With most performers I would chalk it up to either bad acting or bad direction, but I can’t believe that it’s anything other than completely on purpose. It adds another layer of surrealism to the film, another sheen of magic. I spent so long wondering “Why is he doing that? Why is he talking like that?” that it was only three days later I realized that the film was a buddy-comedy, even though there is only one character’s name in the title. I could almost hear Albert whispering “Ta-da!” in my ear.
Carey’s performance is, at the same time Carey classic of the mid 1990s and modern Carey. The character of Steve Gray is a new era performer paving the way for a new type of performance, leaving what was once considered brilliant choking on the dust, and Jim’s performance of the character leaves him creating a strange, looping metaphor about his own career. There are flashes of Ace Ventura’s quick, sudden movements, flashes of Liar Liar’s pausing mid sentence to build comedic suspense, but it is all layered with modern Jim Carey artistic credibility. Just as Steve has built off and exploited the work of older magicians to create something new and different, Jim has built off of and exploited the work of his younger self. And that’s really fucking clever.
Carey appears only four or five times in the movie, but each time you are waiting for him to do something brilliant. You want him to break out into his next trick, and you are never disappointed – but beneath it all there is a vulnerability and intelligence to the character. Russel Brand’s Aldous Snow is an obvious comparison and Gray is performed with a similar level of arrogance/pathos…but he never gets to tell the audience he’s lonely. He never gets the chance. You have to realize it on your own (in my case, five days later).
I would like to touch upon things that are bad about the film, but I’m so lost in the swirling nexus of what was weird by design and what was weird by accident that only one thing immediately springs to mind: the third message of magic and the movie as a whole.
Lesson Three: Women aren’t important
Olivia Wilde’s character is flat and lifeless, despite a really capable performance. She is included as a romantic option, but she never gets a chance to be her own character. Instead she is whipped around by the winds of fate (script writing) to be wherever she needs to be to make men do interesting things. Even in the very end, after all her hard work and enthusiasm, she gets the great and wonderful honour of opening for Albert and Anton. This is supposed to make us feel like she’s won, but really she’s been tossed a dubious bone considering there would be nothing even close to a happy ending without her direct involvement. There is a strange trend in a lot of current films where women are given this kind of intelligence, they are treated as more rational and thoughtful than men, but this leaves them completely removed from the plot.
And that’s what is partially happening with Burt Wonderstone. Jane/Nicole is smarter than the men, but she’s also less important. She is the only character shown to have a real life and real concerns, but that doesn’t make her interesting or acceptable to an audience; it makes her less fun (and thus, less important) than everyone else. I doubt I’m the first person to note how shallow the romance is in Burt Wonderstone, and I’m eager to make it understood that I don’t think this was clever writing, I think it was poor and shameful. Albert treats her like shit, two hours later he apologizes, and bam – they end up having sex. It’s poor writing and poor treatment of women via poor treatment of female characters. Aside from an elderly lady, and a young attractive audience member (who Albert also has sex with), I can’t recall a single other named woman in the movie. That’s not cool.
So how do I rate a movie like The Incedible Burt Wonderstone? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t spent so long musing over the meaning behind a film since Prima, and I haven’t seen a performance as layered as the ones featured within the movie for a long time – and yet, it is, beneath it all, still a formulaic and predictable affair. It’s like one of those long, drawn out, shaggy dog story jokes. Even if you think being told a ten minute long joke is funny, the joke itself probably isn’t. Burt Wonderstone isn’t a clever movie – it’s a dumb movie MADE clever by other things.
As my first review for the site, I’m really tempted to give this one a score in the high 80s and it wouldn’t be over the top for how much depth and enjoyment I’ve got out of this in the last week. Now the words are on paper though, I’ll forget it. It was weird enough to hold my interest, but there wasn’t enough substance to keep it forever. A bit like a magic trick.