Director: Dan Scardino
Writers: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr
Synopsis: Burt (Carell) was never a popular boy at school and neither was his best friend, Anton (Buscemi) but together they used magic to find happiness, and worked so hard that they became a hit Vegas act as adults. However, after many years doing the same act friction is developing between the two and hot new magician Steve Gray (Carrey) is jeopardising their hopes of an ongoing career.
Comedy of the last century has been mainly irreverent and extremely adult. The Hangover, Superbad and Bridesmaids are all the polar-opposite of family entertainment. The other lot of hit comedies have been mostly irrelevant; 12A releases like Little Fockers, Grown Ups and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. That’s unfortunately one of only ways to categories successful comedy cinema of late – a collection of cheap or crude clowning around. The cast and premise of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone looked as though it could change things up somewhat but it sadly reiterates everything that’s wrong with contemporary comedy.
Starting off with a clichéd set-up of Burt Wonderstone’s youth (bullies chasing him home, an uncaring mother and a nerdy kid as his only friend) does the film no favours in making it seem fresh. The only stand-out aspect of the opening is a beautifully surreal piece of casting with Alan Arkin as a famous 80s magician introducing his “how-to” magic video on Burt’s TV. Arkin will later settle into his familiar grouch persona but his briefly jubilant and over-the-top acting (perhaps only funny to those aware of Arkin’s persona outside of the film) is amusing.
As cruel as it is to criticism the child actors, these particular two playing young Burt and Anton are beyond awful, hamming it up (maybe under Dan Scardino’s direction) to within-an-inch of the film’s “life”. As the film moves into present day, with Carrel and Buscemi, it’s a slight relief to have the children gone. Nevertheless, despite Carrel and Buscemi as the leads, they are equally terrible. Carrel puts on an incredibly forced deep voice (a characteristic better suited to Will Ferrell) whilst Buscemi quietly reads through his lines, none of which enable him to get a laugh.
With a cast as hilarious as this it’s a profound shock to see everyone doing so badly. Jim Carrey occasionally delivers a quip or performs a comically contorted face, bringing some humour back, but these moments are few and fleeting. Carrel and Carrey back together again after Bruce Almighty was a definite selling point but something about how the characters are written leaves you wanting to see none of them. Burt is a bastard throughout most of the film and so is Grey; the only difference between them is that the former redeems himself (though even then he still appears fairly cold by the film’s joyous end*).
The funniest scene (and it really does get the entire audience howling) is in the last 5 minutes. In most cases this would be a fantastic way to end a comedy – going out on such a high – but instead, it reminds you of just how unfunny the last 95 minutes were.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone brings dangerous attention to the tawdry aspect of performance and showmanship. Burton and Anton’s show is funny because it’s terrible; captured so well because we are looking at it from within a poorly-constructed presentation (an Inception-esque exercise in criticism). The irony of the title is so well-pronounced – it’s a critic’s dream tool.
*I would have added a spoiler tag but the film is so predictable you know the course of its narrative from the get-go.