The Just Okay Burt Wonderstone

Do you know what’s really crazy? Jim Carrey hasn’t done a movie since Mr. Popper’s Penguins in 2011. Before that, the last was A Christmas Carol in 2009. He’s only been doing random TV cameos and film shorts. Don’t you miss ’90s Jim Carrey?

I do. Ace Ventura, The Mask, The Truman Show, The Cable Guy, Liar Liar—I feel like he was really funny back then. Or maybe he was just getting good scripts. He transitioned well into the early 2000s with How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Bruce Almighty, but then he started taking darker scripts, like The Number 23. I know he’s said in interviews before that he suffers from serious depression (I think every comedian does), but it must have nailed him in the last few years because he hasn’t been on his A-game. I hope he’s doing better because he has a serious chance at revamping his career with Kick Ass 2. I’m not kidding. Go watch the trailer. I couldn’t even tell it was him at first; that’s how good he’s going to be in that movie. But let’s talk about Burt Wonderstone…

Ah, yet again, we come face-to-face with the “Will Ferrell” formula, as I like to call it now. It’s where the movie’s main character starts out as a total jerk on top of the world. Then, he loses everything and realizes what a terrible person he’s been. Finally, he remakes himself into a better person, which helps him rise to the top once more. So…can you guess what happens to Burt Wonderstone? Burt (Steve Carrell) starts off as a greedy, sexist asshole who cares more about his fame, money, and one-night stands than he does his childhood friend and fellow magician, Anton (Steve Buscemi). While attempting a stunt to keep up with “brain rapist” and magical competitor, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), Burt nearly kills Anton, which severs their friendship and leaves Burt alone in their show.

No longer drawing crowds, Burt’s show gets canceled, leaving him broke and homeless. He hits rock bottom when he ends up getting a job doing magic tricks for seniors in a retirement home. There, he meets his magician idol, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), who reminds him why he became a magician. Blah, blah, blah, Burt makes up with Anton. Blah, blah, blah. They put on a great show. Blah, blah, blah. They get their jobs back. Blah, blah, blah. Look, I wouldn’t have a problem with this story if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve seen it 300+ times. All of these damn Hollywood comedies are starting to blend together. None of them stand out anymore.

Let’s talk about the biggest problem with this movie: its undefined tone. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone started to venture down the path of trying to make us laugh, but then it decided about halfway through that the comedy wasn’t working, so it just abandoned the jokes and changed its message entirely to the “teaching a lesson” approach. This is where you can tell the writing wasn’t very good. It went from playful to hitting you over the head with morals in a matter of a few scenes. I’d compare it to listening to a clown lecture you about your life choices. Not that laughter and heart can’t be done at the same time (See: Little Miss Sunshine), but it’s better to do only one excellently rather than attempting two and just doing okay. I wish the writers would’ve just stuck with a playful tone. After all, they had Steve Carrell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, and Alan Arkin at their comedic disposal. How can a movie with such a good cast lack so much comedy? These are some of the funniest men in Hollywood, but the writers showed us that they couldn’t utilize those natural strengths. Rather than focusing the plot on the “old vs. new” fight between Carrell and Carrey’s characters, the writers veered us off into a direction all about friendship and redemption. And coming from ridiculous characters, it was hard to take that message to heart.

Sure, the movie did have its moments. The Siegfried and Roy jokes were out in full force, what with Burt and Anton’s overly-bronzed, big-haired, Liberace-like styling and one of their magician colleagues showing up regularly with new injuries from his work with “big cats.” And then there were the Steve Gray: Brain Rapist jokes poking fun at Criss Angel: Mind Freak. The writers and Jim Carrey totally captured Angel’s eccentric persona and shock-value stunts. Even smaller moments, like Burt constantly calling his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) “Nicole,” were good for a few laughs. It saddens me, though, that what few and sparse jokes we actually got were ruined by the movie’s trailers and TV spots. My favorite scene was the one where Rance Holloway was in the hospital and pretends to die, so he does his “final disappearing act,” and then he’s just hiding under the hospital bed. It was so funny, but a lot of the charm was lost because I’d already seen it in the trailer. Seriously, why is this the new trend? Yes, a comedy should have funny jokes for the trailer in order to draw in its audience. But those jokes shouldn’t be anywhere near as gut-bursting as the jokes in the actual movie. You would think a movie about magicians who continue the notions of never revealing their secrets would follow its own advice and not reveal its funniest parts.

One thing that I thought did a major disservice to the movie was the CGI, and I know they couldn’t work around it either. When actors can’t do something—in this case, create a magical illusion—the CGI is there to fill the void. But let me tell you, I saw Penn & Teller in Vegas once, and it was jaw-dropping. I wanted to know how they did their tricks, but I couldn’t figure them out (Seriously, how can a human do some of those things?). This is the beauty of magic, as was illustrated in the scene where Rance surprises Burt with the dove in the salt-shaker. We know how CGI works though. It’s no trick. We’ve watched countless behind-the-scenes featurettes, showing us how the editors and designers make stunts, creatures, and settings seem real. So how can you have a movie about magic with CGI and still make people feel the true awe of a live magic show? You can’t.

You might have noticed I’ve barely mentioned Olivia Wilde, who is the only actress in this movie that has more than ten lines (*shaking head*). Well, that’s because I’ve saved her discussion for its own paragraph. I don’t know how to explain it, but Olivia Wilde is just not happening. As an actress, I mean. Sure, she’s a pretty face, and she did well in House, but her career hasn’t really been going anywhere. I remember a men’s magazine called her “the new Megan Fox” a while back. While they meant to say she was the new hot piece of ass, I think it’s almost more descriptive of her acting abilities now. Wilde, like Fox, can’t seem to break away from her own shadow to play a movie character. It’s like Wilde, herself, is the character. That being said, her performance as Jane in this movie was almost too “voice of reason.” She was honest and cheeky, making her the antithesis of Burt. But Jane’s practicality mixed with the other characters’ absurdity made her seem faceless and bland, as if she blended into the background and only appeared when she had a line. And therein lies Wilde’s problem as an actress.

Overall, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone left me wanting. It was more “meh” than incredible. Perhaps it was because the movie followed the same tired story seen in most of the recent comedies (You know, the story that no longer surprises moviegoers who are able to follow plots). Or maybe it was because the movie’s tone was so confusing that it was hard to know whether we should have laughed at the occasional jokes or rolled our eyes at the onscreen lecture we received. “Is it funny? Is it heartfelt?” I don’t think the movie, itself, knows what it is. Given that the writers had an amazing cast of comedic actors, you would think that comedy in this movie would’ve been easy to write. But the writers demonstrated nothing more than their inability to utilize the talent they had at hand. If this movie were a magician, it would be the clumsy magician who accidentally ruins his illusion by letting you see his secret hiding compartment in a box.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: C

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