The Surprising, Incredible Burt Wonderstone (review)

Sep 23 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This movie genuinely surprised me.

Besides the characters and story, this is a movie about stage magic. Its writers did a wise thing: they wrote a movie that’s primarily about a failing magician getting back into his game. It is secondarily a comedy.

This brings with it certain drawbacks. But let me get to that in a minute.

The film starts with two nerdy kids who face bullies. One of them discovers stage magic. It doesn’t really help with the bullies, but it gives the two something to focus on. They become engrossed in magic, and grow up to perform a stage show in Vegas.

And that’s precisely when I sat up. The film shows us one of their illusions, a dangerous substitution trick involving one of the characters being “hanged” from a scaffold. And, without calling attention to itself, the film shows us this illusion in one shot. In other words, Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi performed the actual trick.

So the makers of this film clearly harbor a certain respect for stage magic.

The film continues to show us how Carell’s character, Burt, has grown complacent with his success, which leads to a split in the double-act. Worse, this happens in the modern day, when interest in stage magic is at an all-time low.

Enter Jim Carrey, the most outrageous and most annoying thing in the movie.

I have great respect for Carrey, and he creates a wonderfully nasty villain here in an extreme street magician who, for example, cuts his cheek open to “find” a missing card. My problem lies in the sheer amount of time that he spends in front of the camera. He stands as a certain ethical foil to Carrell’s and Buscemi’s characters, as someone who uses magic to shock audiences instead of delight them.

He ends up directly competing for Burt’s position at the Vegas hotel, which leads to even more screen time. And the problem is that his tricks are shocking and disgusting. I didn’t want to see a lot of them, but the film kept giving us more and more of them.

The film already treads a fine line by focusing on a self-absorbed character who slowly learns to be less of a jerk. It’s hard to sit through 2/3 of a movie as you actively dislike the protagonist. And Carell is excellent at acting like a boil on the backside of mankind.

But as I wrote above, the cast and crew keep to an important central theme: these characters want to delight people. It keeps them sympathetic.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Alan Arkin’s wonderful role, but revealing it would spoil the movie. I will say that he’s magnetically irascible.

I happily watched the film to its end. It has heart.

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