“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” reminded me a bit of another comedy about another delusional magician, 2008’s “The Great Buck Howard,” starring John Malkovich. That is a case of a drama with a touch of comedy. “Wonderstone” falls into a special brand of comedy, high on irony, with touches of drama. It stars Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey, all masters of that form, in this hilarious, and heartfelt, movie.
This is a buddy movie. It’s the story of two partners in magic, Burt Wonderstone (played by Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (played by Steve Buscemi). We follow them into the spotlight and a long run at a major Las Vegas casino. It turns out to be a much too long run, as far as the casino tycoon Doug Munny (played by the late James Gandolfini) is concerned and he’s ready to end his contract with the guys. The act has become a caricature of itself, beyond stale, with the same lame old stunts played out to Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.”
It wasn’t always so sad. The first scenes with the kid versions of the leads, Mason Cook as teen Burt and Luke Vanek as teen Anton, are pretty moving. Back when “Abracadabra” was a hit, everything was so fresh and full of promise. It was magical! When Burt, after suffering yet another thrashing from bullies, is given a magic kit as a birthday gift, his future suddenly seems brighter. He pops in the VHS tape and there’s Rance Holloway (played by Alan Arkin) ready to sweep him away from his worries and open up a whole new world of magic. He shares his new insights with his best pal, Anton, and they’re off and running.
Over the years, we’ve had some very successful comedies, from Mel Brooks to Judd Apatow, that have had us pull back from traditional sentiments and yet still invest something in the characters. When all the stars are in alignment and the story is properly synchronized, it can make for some surprisingly good results. Who would have thought that “The 40 Year Old Virgin” would have gotten to you on more than the most superficial level? Well, comedy is a very funny thing. Director Don Scardino (2 Broke Girls, 30 Rock) should know. And screenwriters Johnathan Goldstein (The Adventures of Old Christine) and John Daley (Bones) also know. If one buys into a premise, no matter how full of silly jokes, it is possible to create something meaningful.
For a comedy that you’d think should not be taken seriously, it packs some good lofty thinking. There’s quite a bit of angst and searching for meaning going on here. Burt and Anton are at a major crossroads. Their whole existence is being called into question. They are in the throes of an identity crisis. And to add to it, an ominous figure emerges, Steve Gray (played by Jim Carrey), who taunts Burt and Anton by having them doubt their very purpose in life. Steve Gray represents the new breed of illusionist who mocks the traditional craft of magic tricks and has become famous for his stunts, like going a week without urinating. He is supposed to be the future. And Burt and Anton are supposed to be the past.
Things only get worse before there’s any hope of them getting better. Just as Burt appears to have suffered through all possible humiliation, he crosses paths with his old mentor, Rance Holloway. Alan Arkin, a legend in comedy, is quite up to the task of providing the heart and soul that could makes things right. Add to that, there is Burt’s mistreated assistant, a sexy young woman, Jane (played by Olivia Wilde) who, by all rights, shouldn’t even be anywhere near Burt. But, as if my luck and magic, Jane remains nearby doing her part to provide incentive for Burt to fully redeem himself.
Comedy and magic share a lot in common. They can both be very direct pure entertainment. They can both have the quality of being very unreal while affecting us in a very real way. This story about magic is handled with love, and the right amount of irreverence, to keep it relevant and magical. It’s impressive how artful this movie really is. When you stop and think about it, Steve Gray, the flashy illusionist, is there, despite himself, to push Burt. He’s delusional to a toxic level but he’s also, inadvertently, confronting the whole purpose and intent of entertainment in general. Does the public only want spectacle? Wow. The talent behind “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” has got some answers for that and they will also make you laugh.
By the way, if you have caught the magic bug, you’ll want to check out Market Magic Shop here. And, if you’re in Seattle, you can visit them at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Since I’m in Seattle, I get to visit whenever I want. My last visit inspired me to write this movie review. Here’s a look at me dabbling with a little magic:
And be sure to visit “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” official website here.