THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE"
If Siegfried dumped Roy and then launched a vendetta against Criss Angel, you'd have The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. This is an interesting movie, in that it recognizes the shift that has taken place in the magic world over the past few decades. One of my childhood memories involves family and friends gathering around the TV to watch the latest Doug Henning special on network TV. It was an event, albeit one infused with an excess of Vegas-style cheesiness. You'll still find magic on the tube, but these days, much of it is less about illusion and more about stunts designed to test personal stamina. You know, David Blaine living in a block of ice, that kind of thing. A guy dressed in sequins working with a tiger no longer seems as exciting as a goth dude on the street cutting himself with a knife.
Steve Carell plays the title character, an old school Vegas magician who has grown tired of doing the same show night after night. His partner is Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), a childhood friend whom he can no longer stand the sight of. After their act breaks up, Burt is unable to go it alone. Audiences and casino owners are much more fascinated by arrogant street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who has a penchant for tricks that both repel and fascinate his viewers. Through a process of self-discovery, Burt learns that he needs to reclaim his love of magic if he wants to stay on top. Helping him do this are his onstage assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his childhood idol, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has nostalgia for classical magic that is sweet and endearing. Buried underneath all the jokes rests a very simple idea: vintage illusions will ultimately outlast the modern “endurance test” types of tricks because they provide genuine wonder, rather than just momentary astonishment. Like magic itself, Burt Wonderstone has changed into something callous, something impure. He claims to despise Steve Gray, but Burt shares with the edgy performer a certain cynicism. Over the course of the story, he tries to get back to his roots. In showing how he does this, the film explores the notion that genuine, old-fashioned showmanship provides a measure of enjoyment no contemporary shock value antics can ever match. It's an intriguing theme to lay beneath what appears on the surface to be a silly comedy.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with silly comedies so long as they're funny, which this one is. Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi nail the overdone theatrics of many Vegas magicians, while Jim Carrey is hilarious as the brazenly dark attention getter. Olivia Wilde is really great too, going toe-to-toe with the comic heavyweights. She gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie, simply with the way she awkwardly walks the first time her character is pushed onstage. The screenplay, written by Horrible Bosses scribes Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is quite observant about the magic scene. Jokes are crafted around illusions and stunts you've seen performed in real life, such as a bit in which Burt tries to hit on Jane while inside a box being pierced with swords. The spoofs of Criss Angel/David Blaine-style gimmicks are hysterical, too. I laughed often at Burt Wonderstone, and it's worth adding that the movie has one of the funniest sex scenes of recent years.
Admittedly, Burt's character arc is fairly standard, and there are moments that would have benefited from a big joke that never arrives. Those are fairly minor complaints. For me, the biggest drawback is one that probably only a magic fan would be bothered by. Some of the tricks performed in the story are physically not possible. CGI is used to accomplish them. (For example, one character makes a dove emerge from inside a random salt shaker.) Because they are impossible, these tricks tended to momentarily interrupt my involvement in the story. Since it is clearly designed to be a love letter to magicians, Burt Wonderstone is most effective when it uses real illusions (or variations thereof) to tell its tale.
On balance, though, this is a more thoughtful comedy than it initially appears. The movie is quite funny, and the actors certainly look comical in their outlandish outfits, but the theme of “old magic” versus “new magic” is what really makes The Incredible Burt Wonderstone tick. This is a nice reminder that sometimes putting an original spin on something tried-and-true is even better than something completely new.
( out of four)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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