Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Alternate Title:  Sleight of Plot

One sentence synopsis:   A famous stage magician must overcome his own arrogance to compete with a shock-artist street magician in Las Vegas.

Things Havoc liked: I like Steve Carrell. I like him despite the admittedly awful material he often chooses to appear in. Yes, he's schmaltzy when he's not being insufferable, but that works in some movies, and things like The 40-year-old Virgin, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Dinner for Schmucks, or Little Miss Sunshine (to say nothing of his work on The Office) showcase just how well he's able to play a sincere idiot (if that makes any sense). As such, despite the utter dreck that his career is studded with (the less said about Evan Almighty or the Get Smart remake, the better), I actually pay attention when a new film of his comes out, despite the fact that straight comedy is in no way my preferred genre. At worst, his films are inoffensively stupid, and at best, they can actually, I think, be almost moving (shut up). One need only look over the other films on offer during Doldrums Season to see just how appealing a minimum threshold of "inoffensive" can become.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone stars Carrell as a stage magician in the vein of Seigfreid & Roy, the leading half of a partnership whose other half is played by the inestimable Steve Buscemi. What Buscemi, whose pedigree needs no recitation, is doing here in the role of the hapless best friend being driven away by Carrell's arrogance is entirely beyond me, but fortunately Buscemi is an awesome actor who makes everything he's in better, and it's fun just watching him parade around on stage like a cross between David Copperfield and Liberace. The antagonist, meanwhile, is supplied by none other than Jim Carrey, whose career has been an Eddie-Murphy-level joke for the last nine years. I loved Jim Carrey back in the 90s and into the 2000s whenever he took on a project more adult than Yes Man. Here, he plays a David-Blaine style "street" magician, whose acts involve ever-escalating bouts of self-mutilation, shock-horror, and exceedingly painful endurance stunts. Carrey steals the show in this one, riding the edge of his usual slapstick insanity without ever crossing over into out-and-out lunacy. It's a pleasure to see him back in proper form at last, and his villain is just weird enough to prove the most interesting part of the entire exercise.

Things Havoc disliked: *Sigh*

So, a couple years ago, Will Farrell and John C. Reily made a movie called Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, about a NASCAR driver who falls from the pinnacle of his profession due to his arrogance, must spend time in a humble position reconnecting with why he came to love the sport he practices, and then with the help of an elderly mentor, returns to the limelight armed with the lessons he has learned to unseat an even more arrogant rival and reclaim his championship and his personal relationships. It was a fairly forgettable movie, being neither particularly good nor particularly funny, but I mention it here because Burt Wonderstone is the exact same film.

This is not hyperbole. This movie is identical, almost to the point of a shot-for-shot remake, to the Farrell film. The same journeys are taken by the same characters for the same reasons at the same moments. Everything, down to the minor details of when a character gives an inspiring speech, how long the retraining montages last, or when and in what manner the various protagonist-antagonist clashes erupt is identical, root and branch. Lest I sound accusatory, I am not trying to claim that the filmmakers here consciously ripped the other film off, but merely that the plot formula they came up with was so generic that it has literally already been done before. And despite the fact that Talledega Nights was the very definition of forgettable, this one actually comes off like the low-rent version.

I could single out this actor or that one to blame, from Carrell, whose amoral shithead of a magician is such an uncaring douchebag that nobody would believably put up with him for five minutes, to James Gandolfini, still playing Tony Soprano, to Olivia Wilde, last seen in the brilliant Tron Legacy (ugh) who here plays a completely generic love interest, but the issue isn't that this performance is bad or that one wooden. The issue is that even within the formulaic plot, there are mis-steps made. Jim Carrey's character is forced into the antagonist slot simply because it's what his character is "supposed" to play in a movie like this, all without actually bothering to make him a bad guy. He's weird of course, and arrogant, but so is our hero, moreso than this guy could ever hope to be. And as Carrell's "conversion" to being a non-douchebag is handled with such a sense of obligatory obliviousness that we never buy it in the first place, the worst thing that can be laid at Carrey's door is that he revels in showing off his superior magician skills. Similarly, the grand "reveal" that the heroes use to win their place in the end of the film is nowhere established, but simply deployed out of nowhere. It's as though the filmmakers knew the formula had been done to death, and thought it so well established that there was no need to establish it within the film. Carrell doesn't win out over Carey or become a better person because of actions that happen in the movie. He does these things because the filmmakers know we're expecting him to.

Final thoughts:    Burt Wonderstone isn't a terrible movie by any stretch. Carrell does a decent enough job once he stops pretending to be an insufferable dick (yes, it's possible to be bad at being an asshole), Carrey and Buscemi are entertaining to watch, and there's quite a bit of good-to-excellent slight-of-hand on screen. But I've seen out-and-out remakes less derivative of another film than this movie was of earlier genre comedies, and nothing here ever builds to the point of the farce that might have excused such lame recycling.

Pickings are always slim this time of year, I grant, but if your movie choices get to the point where you're considering going to see this repetitive film, then the best advice I have is to stay home.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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