Likeability Trumps Inconsistency In "Burt Wonderstone"

There’s only one profession more thankless than comedy – the appraisal of comedy. Humor is an art form built on idiosyncrasy, ready to topple at the first hint of hesitation or silence, and no word, gesture, or expression crosses the right frontal lobe of any two people the same way. Unlike great literature, comedy doesn’t necessarily transcend generational gaps, nor is it everlasting. When it comes to potential laughs, context, both internal and external, is everything, making it impossibly hard to audit. And while stand-up can be brutal, stand-up comics are afforded real people to provide reactions in real time. If they bomb, they can always get it right the next time. Comedy on film? You get one shot. Make it count.

There are no laughs inherent on the written page, no guffaws built in to a reel of film, and no chuckles native to any performance by an actor. Even someone as battle-tested as Steve Carell is doomed to spend a career in the comedic trenches, having no choice but to bottle lightning on command, surrounded by cast, crew, cameras, and lights. Lots of bright, hot lights. A line isn’t working? It’s not the writer who’ll be projected onto thousands of screens across the country and imprinted onto tens of thousands of DVDs making a fool of himself. When action or drama fails, audiences are much more likely to shrug their shoulders and brush it off. When comedy fails, audiences stop. Point. Gawk. Look at the famous people being so unfunny!

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a lot of things that no film strives to be – short on story, oddly paced, and decidedly shallow. Bushels of alleged jokes stand quietly in the corner, waiting to be noticed. But enough of the film borders on side-splitting that it’s easy to ignore its weaker elements. It’s funny, which admittedly means nothing more than “I laughed.” I didn’t always laugh, but when I did, I laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more. A handful of the gags are genuinely inspired while some are sort of deranged, and the writers’ desire to entertain and the actors’ willingness to shed all pretense ultimately coalesces into something much more agreeable than its rough patches might suggest.

Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi star as Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelston, two best friends who’ve spent 30 years performing magic together. Their headlining show at Bally’s Las Vegas has stalled out, as has their friendship, and the rise of a new Criss Angel-David Blaine hybrid, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), has begun to transform the magic landscape. Olivia Wilde co-stars as Jane (also known as Nicole), assistant to Burt and Anton and an aspiring magician, and Alan Arkin supports as the elder statesman of the magic world, Rance Holloway. The first act is weirdly formless, coming off as a loose assemblage of scenes without much of a story. It’s the definition of “hit and miss.”

Burt and Anton split up, and the former is left with nothing but misplaced arrogance and a fading love of the art form he fell in love with as a kid. Thankfully, as the narrative ramps up, so does the number of successful gags. Carrey’s character is mostly tangential to the story, but his scenes are fairly amusing, as is Anton’s extended sequence in Cambodia. The film’s genuine love of traditional magic is refreshing – Burt’s attitude, not his love of magic, is what’s being mocked – and the digs at street magic and macabre stunts are uniformly satisfying. Unsurprisingly, Arkin is as dependable as ever, and he elevates the latter half of the film.

Director Don Scardino has worked almost exclusively in TV in the past, and his inexperience with the medium is noticeable. But the all-star cast keeps things interesting when the pic drifts into small-screen territory, and the aforementioned issues with aimlessness disappear in the third act. The pacing magically tightens up and my expectations were confounded rather than confirmed. The climax is memorable, but it’s a pre-credits stinger than seals the deal.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is flawed, but its affability is undeniable. It wants nothing more than to make us laugh, and its good intentions are more than just empty promises. Most audiences will laugh. Perhaps not as much or as loudly as I did, but any amount of genuine laughter has a way of picking up the most jaded audience member. With expectations in check, give “Burt Wonderstone” a chance. It’s not the classic it could have been, but it’s worthy of your time – and worthy of its superstar cast.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 15, 2013
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Don Scardino
Screenwriter: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey, Jay Mohr, Michael Bully Herbig
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)