Sunday, March 17, 2013

Slight of Bland: THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE


What a difference ten years makes. In 2003, Jim Carrey starred in the comedy Bruce Almighty as an average guy given the chance to borrow God-like powers, but the real scene-stealer, indeed the only person whose contribution I can remember to this day, was Steve Carell in a supporting role. Now here we are in 2013 with the comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It stars Carell in the title role while the more memorable moments appear courtesy of Carrey in a supporting role. It’s amazing what can happen to a showbiz career in only a decade, an observation worth noting in connection with Wonderstone since it happens to be a point on which the plot hinges. Carell plays a cheesy, theatrical, old school magician who, with his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), has headlined at a Las Vegas hotel performing the same magic act for ten years. They were wildly popular and wealthy, but the act’s gone stale and ticket sales are plummeting. Their hotelier boss (James Gandolfini) says he’ll fire them and hire a flashy new magician (Jim Carrey), a decision that spurs Wonderstone to put together a new show that’ll wow the crowds all over again.

What follows is a movie that’s big, broad and bland. It’s predictable in every beat right up to the rather mean-spirited finale that’s nonetheless played as triumphant victory. Carell’s Wonderstone is nothing more than a pompous and out-of-touch cheeseball, a sort of softer, off-brand Zoolander. In the movie he follows the predictable arc that starts from top of the world before getting knocked down to low lows until he finds it within himself, through the help of the characters around him, to know better how to find his way back to the top. What little that’s interesting here relates to the tension between the older style of magic making, typified by a mail order magic kit hawked by a slick showman (Alan Arkin) that holds a special place in the lives of Carell and Buscemi, and the newer more aggressive and ugly magic as practiced by the flashy, gross magician played by Carrey. Where our protagonists are average guys all dressed up with pompadours and in velvet making a dancing entrance to Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra," he’s wiry, with long stringy hair, black clothing and pounding heavy metal. He’s obnoxious, at one point cutting open his cheek to pull out a bloody, folded up playing card. “Is this your card?” he asks. It is. (His final trick is super gross, too. I shall not spoil it, except to say it’s horrifying, cringe-worthy, and a little funny.)

The tension between types of magic, though, is ground under by the homogenized mediocrity of it all in a film eager to use that central conflict as set dressing rather than utilizing it as the intriguing idea that it is. Director Don Scardino (a sitcom staple) finds little of visual interest, preferring instead to keep the in medium shots and let the lines land. It’s too bad the lines in the script by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (they of Horrible Bosses) are largely inoffensive clunkers that go down easily and without impact. It’s a comedy that fails on both on a plot level and on a scene-by-scene basis, gathering up few laughs and even less of a reason to care. Why, then, did I not out-and-out hate this movie? It’s the cast and the cast alone. Carell and Buscemi have a funny sort of buddy chemistry that occasionally wrings some laughter out of the neglected premise. A few of Gandolfini’s line readings are just unexpected enough to bring a sort of backwards gravitas to some very silly moments. And Carrey, flailing about with little to do, nonetheless makes a big impact by bringing total commitment to a nutty part that a lesser comic actor would’ve no doubt undersold.  

I haven’t even mentioned Olivia Wilde yet and that’s a shame. She’s playing a nothing character, a token female presence that is only around to provide an anemic romantic subplot. You could take Wilde out of Wonderstone entirely and the movie would lose exactly nothing in terms of coherence and impact. That’s unfortunate, but the movie is a big nothing all around. It has so many promising elements mixed in with a game cast and yet proceeds to make use of none of them. It’s blandly uninvolving and perplexingly dull, aside from the once or twice I snickered or half-smiled at the best efforts of everyone involved. The whole thing was leaving my head even as I walked out of the theater. I barely remember it as I type these words a day after I saw it, so I doubt I’ll remember anything about it in ten years.

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