So it’s at a measly 37% at Rotten Tomatoes, but note that audience approval is significantly higher, at 63%. Yes, critics have been harsh to this film, which probably explains the empty theater I was sitting in. (The last time I was in a room that full of empty seats, I was 17 and on stage at the Comic Strip on First Avenue in New York.)
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes the classic mistake of thinking a comedy about magicians will be magical,” wrote someone from the Times UK. No, I expect a comedy about magicians to be funny. I expect a live magic act to be magical.
And I’m here to tell you to ignore the critics, because The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is funny. Not in Anchorman‘s league, perhaps, but close enough to make it worth your time and geetus.
So Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton (not their real names, by the way) were scrawny, picked-on kids in 1982 who discovered that the way to compensate for their general uncoolness was to beguile their classmates with magic. The duo’s hero was none other than Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), whose home magic kits taught you the basic handkerchief from nowhere, three unbreakable rings, and quarter from behind the ear tricks. The videotape that accompanied the instructions and props made the prospect of being a magician seem almost too good to be true for this all too too solid world.
But Burt and Anton persevered, becoming a team, only to grow up to become Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, who, dressed a little too much like Siegfried and Roy, sell out their own theater in Las Vegas night after night, dazzling audiences with their amazing friendship as much as their disappearing tricks.
But all is not as it seems: Burt is an insufferably arrogant, clueless ladies man who is so caught up in his own little world of hotel suites, glitter, and make believe that he barely knows what the Internet is. His crude, sexist, and abusive ways result in the team’s having to find a new lovely female assistant every two weeks. Fortunately for him, Jane comes along (Olivia Wilde), a backstage assistant and inspiring magician herself. She quickly learns all the gags even while thwarting Burt’s come-ons. She’s not quite Michelle Pfeiffer to an illusionist version of Jeff and Beau Bridges, but that’s the vibe.
One day Burt and Anton happen upon a street performer: Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Imagine a cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine and you’ve got the picture. Dubbed “the Mind Rapist,” Gray’s act consists of self-mutilation, torture, and gross-out grotesquerie. “What you do is not magic,” Wonderstone tells Gray late in the film. “It’s monkey porn.”
But Gray is the wave of he future, and the owner of the hotel and casino that employs Burt and Anton (James Gandolfini) needs them to understand that they are in danger of becoming extinct if they don’t freshen up their aging act. So the boys decide to sit in a transparent box high in the Las Vegas sky, baking in the sun, for two weeks. Yes, it’s come to that — they are going to torture themselves for their art. (Burt had offered to hold in his poop for 24 hours after Gray went a week without peeing, but that just wasn’t radical enough.)
Needless to say, Burt is not cut out for the ascetic life, and when the sky-box gag literally crashes, Burt and Anton turn on each other, and the duo go their separate ways. Burt thinks he can do the same act without his lifelong friend, but of course, he can’t — and so ends up entertaining retired Vegas showgirls and Elvis impersonators at a nursing home, where he meets up with his idol, the one and only Rance Holloway, who manages to reinvigorate that original spark, that joy, that had inspired the young Burt to become a magician in the first place.
Carell makes the most of his pompous gift-of-the-gods entertainer, with chest puffed out and nose in the air. Buscemi plays the long-suffering, hangdog-looking partner who has maintained a certain childlike naiveté that’s just left of stupid with his usual ease. He manages to be both likable and sad as the dingbat everyone loves to insult and who learns too late that poor children in Asia don’t really want magic, only food and clean water. And while Jim Carrey has gotten the best reviews of the bunch, I think Sacha Baron Cohen, who was considered for the Steve Gray role, would have been a better choice. Carrey’s character has all the best mugging, but the actor is simply doing Ace Ventura again. Cohen would have taken the masochism to a new level of international depravity such that puppies and vulnerable elderly would have died from mysterious cardiac “events” even if miles from the nearest theater.
Gandolfini’s hotel and casino owner has one running gag — he can never remember his kid’s age — and was in desperate need of a character overhaul. (Why Gandolfini took the role is anyone’s guess.) The you-could-make-yourself-crazy-just-thinking-about-how-beautiful-she-is Wilde holds her own amid the insanity, playing straight to the comics for the most part, but bringing just enough life and passion to an otherwise thankless role to keep her from becoming mere eye candy.
But it is Alan Arkin who steals the show as the been-there/done-that, pained former magic guru who finds the new generation of “magicians” repellant poseurs.
And that’s the real message of the film: the magical, jaw-dropping aspects of our world, our very existence, have not only been explained but also explained away by generations of materialists, reductionists, and social scientists. The awe is gone, so all that is left is shock — such that 15-minute-famers populate TV screens hurting, piercing, and humiliating themselves as forms of entertainment for the working classes. Can’t experience wonderment, astonishment, joy anymore? OK. What do you feel when I drive this drill bit into my skull? Now you try. Feel that? Good. At least you know you’re alive.
It’s just not enough to pull a rabbit out of a hat anymore, says Steve Gray: “You have to pull your heart out of your chest.”
I laughed a lot in the hundred or so minutes of the film, even though this script could have used a once-over in places. But there was some very funny dialogue: when Burt is trying to make it up to his harassed former assistant Jane, he forces himself to encourage her pursuit of a magic career of her own.
Jane: “You weren’t too excited about it when I asked to be your partner.”
Burt: “Well, women didn’t have the same opportunities they do now.”
Jane: “It was a month ago.”
But I was absolutely beside myself at the final scene. I mean, tears down the cheeks laughing like an idiot. While it sorta/kinda indulges in the theater of the cruel, thereby undercutting its nostalgia for a kinder, gentler Vegas, it nevertheless answers a question you can’t help but ask about Burt, Anton, and now Jane’s most momentous and career-saving illusion.
“This may be the kind of semi-bad, semi-inspired comedy that could not only stand repeated viewings but perhaps improve with them,” says one TIME critic. While the film is dying a rapid death in theaters, you will definitely want to catch it on VOD, Netflix, RedBox, HBO, BluRay, Brainhat, Friendface, or whatever venue you choose.
It may not be “magical” — but it will definitely make you laugh.