Synopsis: When a street magician’s stunt begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) look to salvage on their act and win back their audiences by staging their own daring stunt
Dramatic movies about illusion and slight of hand have in recent years been awesome. In 2006 we got a battle of two fantastic movies in The Prestige and The Illusionist both telling dark stories of love and betrayal against a backdrop of smoke and mirrors. The reason it works so well I think is because in a thriller a good director will use narrative smoke and mirrors to keep an audience on their toes. They’ll make you chase the rabbit down the hole while the story goes the other way. So when you get to the reveal you’re surprised by how you got there, even if you suspected that was where you were going all along.
Comedies about magic on the other hand have tended to be total shite. Which is a surprise given how much material is there for self referential nods to over the top, camp egos, terrible props and hackneyed tricks. So as I sat back with my Ben & Jerry’s the challenge was on for Burt Wonderstone to conjour up a butt-load of laughs
Illusion and magic are two very different things. Illusion is Darren Brown. It’s making you look one way and then stealing your wallet (god damn little shit on the Subway. If I ever find you….). It’s dark, edgy, psychological molestation in the name of entertainment. It makes you wonder if anything is real anymore. Magic on the other hand is not any of these things. It is Sigfried & Roy, David Copperfield, Paul Daniels. It’s velvet suits, big props, drugged up tigers, orange perma-tans and, in a nut-shell, kind of creepy. The old over the top magic shows have become cliched and dated.
Then there is a third thing; street magicians. David Blaine. Stretching magic to cover acts of human endurance. There is nothing magical about standing in a box for 7 days or watching every episode of Sex & The City consecutively with no sleep. Impressive? Maybe. Magical? No. Street magicians coming off as total dickbags? Definitely.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is at it’s heart an old and well trodden story; established stars who have become complacent being ousted from their pedestal by fresh young upstarts. But it’s genius comes in sending up every aspect of the traditional Vegas stage show and the douchebag, street magicians who think holding the pee in for 7 days constitutes magic. It also benefits from having two actors who thrive on physical comedy as it’s leading stars, and a director who understands the importance of well timed visual comedy.
As Burt Wonderstone Steve Carrell is a equal parts Brick from Anchorman and Evan from Bruce Almighty as he goes from A-List Vegas star who sleeps with his audience members before leaving them the gift of a signed picture in the morning, and spends $75000 a month on bed sheets, to a has been who has to rediscover his love of magic. The man can wear a velvet suit, perma tan and bad wig like no other. It weirdly suits him. Carrell ramps up the trademark huffing, randomly shouting deadpan delivery to 11. Remember the Evan ramble on Bruce Almighty? Just like that.
Jim Carrey is perfect as sleazy butthole Street “Magician” Steve Gray. He gets free reign to go Full Carrey all over the screen. It’s like a dialled down Mask performance. You get the sense he doesn’t have to try very hard to put out those performances and that they come as naturally as breathing or being bat-shit crazy. Watching him go Mano et Magiciono at a kids birthday party is a highlight. Ever wondered where you might smuggle a small puppy? Wonder no more!!
There are some moments that had me creased up in fits of laughter, and these tended to be moments of genuine old school, silly gags and set pieces. Don’t under-estimate the comedy power of watching someone do a two man magic routine on their own in front of an audience. Or the simplicity of a double take gag. Or watching someone come to terms with their fall from grace when they don’t realise that the Hotel doens’t deliver room service away from the building when you have been evicted, or that people don’t magically clear up your plates if you leave them outside your door regardless of where you’re living. It makes you realise you are watching masters of physical comedy when they can make a gag you’ve seen a thousand times before, and you know is coming, pant-pissingly funny. By far and away though one of the best moments comes right before the credits though. While most movies would have left on the magic of the sentimental high note, Burt Wonderstone decides to pull back the curtain to great effect.
Finally Carrell and Carrey are more than matched by a great supporting cast. Steve Buscemi is all frowns and googly eyes as Burt’s partner The Amazing Anton. I forget he has a history of silly comedy as one of the stranger recurring members of Adam Sandler’s older comedies like Little Nicky, The Wedding Singer and Big Daddy. James Gandolfini does his best comedy Tony Soprano as casino boss Doug Munney, a man so unscrupulous he uses his kid’s birthday party as a product launch. Olivia Wilde proves she can do comedy as more than just the token hot lady, a role she was reduced to in The Change Up. But Alan Arkin, as usual, steals it with a typically acerbic, dry, wry performance as the old bitter magician Rance Holloway. A man with little concern for the welfare of his doves.
Conclusion: As silly, but much funnier, than I was expecting. Comedy finally realised how ridiculous magic is and found a way to send it up with out to much sentimentality. Like the Prestige but with more hahas.
Director: Dan Scardino – Veteran TV comedy director with an impressive set of credits including 38 episodes of 30 Rock. He knows how to direct comedy and you get hints of 30 Rock delivery and chemistry during parts of the film’s more “sentimental” parts.
Writer: Jonathan Goldstein – previous work includes OK comedy Horrible Bosses. Also part of Twitter feed TV adaptation Shit My Dad Says; John Francis Daley -best known as Dr Lance Sweets in Bones, I wondered why he had a random cameo in this. Turns out he also wrote Horrible Bosses with Goldstein. Currently writing Horrible Bosses 2 (seems a stretch to make a sequel) and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (that should be awesome).
Cast: Steve Carrell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr
- Don Scardino insisted that the over-the-top illusions in to be entirely shot with practical special effects. Magician David Copperfield served as an advisor for those scenes, and certain shots had to be achieved with digital effects.
In cinemas now