March 15, 2013

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”


THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE:  Not Even For Free – While You’re Watching… Poof!  It’s Gone

It would have been a neat trick if Steve Carell could have pulled off as clear a Will Ferrell role as the lead in THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE.  But Ferrell’s brand of flamboyant, childish, deluded yet vulnerable vaingloriousness just doesn’t play to Carell’s low-key strengths, and when he parades around as a Las Vegas magician in pomaded wigs and costumes that are like cast-offs from Blades of Glory, he looks like a harried bureaucrat playing dress-up for Halloween.  (The reverse is true, too:  Ferrell was a disaster when he appeared in a few episodes of The Office to bridge Carell’s departure, an inhabitant of a far more exaggerated universe than Dunder-Mifflin’s.)

Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) were childhood nerds who bonded when they found a refuge in magic tricks, and eventually became more or less Siegfried & Roy without the killer animals, unaccountably (since their act never appears even vaguely good) headlining at Bally’s casino in Vegas for 10 years.  When the main action of the movie begins, Burt has become an increasingly monstrous egotist, rude not just to Anton to to everyone who works on the act, including assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde).  He’s also become a soulless ham who goes through the motions of the act and no longer feels the thrill of creating illusions, and as their audiences dwindle, Burt and Anton break up and Burt is out on his ear.  The arc of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s script (two additional writers are credited with the story as well) couldn’t be more predictable:  Burt will have to be humbled and become a better human being to find true love and success, roughly simultaneously.  It’s the kind of screenplay where when the action pauses for a full minute or so to let characters watch a TV news report, you make a mental note that the subject of that report is going to be a key part of the movie’s third act (which it is).

As ticket buyers, we’re generally OK with Hollywood comedies being predictable as long as they deliver the laughs, but Burt Wonderstone is wan and almost always a half-step off the beat.  Buscemi is as miscast as Carell is (the movie would have been better if they’d switched roles), and although the script talks a good game about the way Burt takes women for granted, it never allows Wilde to be more than The Pretty Girl–which is a shame, because she showed in Butter that she can be wickedly funny with the right material.  (She and Carell do have one sweetly humorous bit when they’re in bed together, which works because it’s in Carell’s small-scale comedy comfort zone.)  Alan Arkin, as the aged magician whose VHS tape once inspired Burt to take up magic, and who of course appears late in the story as his reluctant Obi-Wan, could play this part in his sleep, but he’s nothing if not a pro, and he gets just about all of the chuckles allotted to him.  The movie only comes briefly alive, though, when Jim Carrey shows up as Burt’s foe, the David Blaine-ish Steve Gray, whose idea of magic is abusing his own body with incisions, hot coals and a very extended refusal to urinate.  Carrey (who also would have been a better Wonderstone–really, just about anyone in the movie would have been better cast than Carell) doesn’t try to make sense of Gray, and he’s much more on his game than in his recent sentimental comedies Mr. Popper’s Penguins, A Christmas Carol or Yes Man; he strides through his scenes with the freedom of a comic who doesn’t have to carry the movie’s uplifting message on his back.

Don Scardino was house director on 30 Rock for much of its run, and Burt Wonderstone has the flat lighting (cinematographer Matthew Clark also hails from 30 Rock) and bland production design of a sitcom, except here he doesn’t have the benefit of the writing and casting of his old TV show.  The one sequence Scardino does pull off visually is at the very end, part of the silly but satisfying finale–although not satisfying enough to redeem what came before it.

Movies that include their own adjectives in their titles are always running a risk, and nothing in Burt Wonderstone qualifies as incredible.  The only sleight of hand it accomplishes is making 100 minutes of our time (and a few bucks of our money) disappear.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."