Earlier this year I was lucky enough to see David Copperfield on stage in Vegas. Yes, all the dramatic, intense eye contact and super fancy hand flourishes were present, but it was actually a small theater, with an intimate show. He wandered through the audience doing as much up-close magic as big stage magic. There was a wind machine one time (which he fully acknowledged was cheesy), but no showgirls doing fancy hand gestures. It was a really great show, and the man turned a piece of paper into a paper rose, and then into a real rose about 3 feet from me, and I have no idea how he did it. Truly great magicians provide that amazing “how did they do that?” moment, with the sense of awe and wonderment. The best movie I have seen with magicians/illusionists is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. If you haven’t seen it, check it out now, it’s really cool and weird, and non-linear.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is directed by Don Scardino, and this is his first feature film. He has previously done a lot of sitcom directing, which you feel when you watch this movie. For something shot it Vegas, which could have been really big, with great shots of the strip, it has a small feel. Burt Wonderstone and Aton Marvelton have been friends since childhood and have had a long-running Vegas stage “Magical Friendship” show at Ballys. With the up and coming street magician Steve Gray gaining a following, their ticket sales have taken a tumble. They put together one large trick to gain back their fan base; it goes wrong; they have a falling out. Wonderstone then ponders his existence, his spending, and his ego. He randomly encounters his childhood idol magician, and rediscovers his love for magic. He makes up with Marvelton; and they get together to pull off one last big trick to re-establish their reputations. This, along with the stars, makes you think this movie should be hilarious.
Congrats to the marketing department. The movie looks hilarious in the commercials. However, it would appear that again the majority of the funny parts are all in the commercials. Wonderstone is such a pompous ass that even when his redemption occurs, I didn’t care. It felt to me that the majority of this movie was missed opportunities and wasted potential. I also felt like it would have been stronger as an ensemble comedy, instead of so strongly being a Steve Carell vehicle.
· Steve Carell plays Wonderstone well, but again – he’s such an ass that I really couldn’t stand him. Wonderstone’s journey of rediscovering his love for magic makes sense for the movie, but again, I felt no attachment to it. His performance is really over the top, so more comedy in the movie would have made sense.
· Steve Buscemi plays Anton Marvelton, and knowing how good Buscemi is at comedy (go back and watch some of his 30 Rock episodes), it’s disappointing that he didn’t have more to do comedy-wise in this movie. Instead, he’s just the foil for Carell, and really is not in that much of the movie.
· Olivia Wilde plays Jane/Nicole. She’s a magician who is looking to get an opportunity, and settles for playing Wonderstone and Marvelton’s assistant. The fact that Wonderstone never bothers to use her real name is a ‘funny’ running gag. She then briefly works for Steve Gray before helping Wonderstone on his journey. Her character was interesting, and had some funny moments, and is the only female character in the movie. The movie completely threw all the positive things she had going for her out the the window by (spoiler alert) having her fall for Wonderstone at the end, despite the fact that he was terrible to her the majority of the movie, and is way too old for her. According to the storyline, just a month prior he was still not remembering her name and demanding she sleep with him as part of her job. I know it’s a comedy, but it was infuriating and exceptionally insulting that she hooks up with him. It was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story.
· Jim Carrey plays up and coming street magician Steve Gray. He’s a cross between the long street stunts of David Blaine (I’m going to sit in an ice cube for a week!) and Criss Angel (I’m dangerous and goth, is this your card, my eyes are red - mindfreak!). Carrey is perfect in this role, and also completely despicable. He’s also pretty toned-down for Jim Carrey.
· James Gandolfini plays the billionaire owner of Ballys who gets rid of Wonderstone and Marvelton, then hires Wonderstone to play his son’s birthday party, then holds a competition for magicians to win the stage act at his new casino/hotel. He’s fine, but the role doesn’t demand much. The running gag that he does not know the age of his son does not play, and really makes him despicable as well.
· Alan Arkin plays Rance Holloway, the magician that young Burt and Anton idolized. When Burt stumbles across him in a retirement home, he helps teach him the love of magic again. Arkin is great, but not enough to save the movie, he also feels slightly phoned in. Just go watch Argo again.
· Jay Mohr surprised me as Rick the Implausible (great name!). I have always found Jay Mohr irritating, and this is the first time I have not found him irritating. He’s in a small enough role that he’s just funny, not annoying. In fact, the scenes I enjoyed the most were the ones in the “magician’s bar” where they gathered to have drinks and talk shop.
· David Copperfield briefly appears as himself, and he did help coordinate some of the Burt and Anton tricks behind the scenes.
· Gillian Jacobs from Community plays a woman who Wonderstone picks up during a show, and ‘romances’. She basically is there to demonstrate that he is so bored with existence that his whole routine is a well-oiled machine, right down to the autographed picture he leaves for her after their encounter.
All in all, this is another one of those movies that is all wasted potential. I feel like between the subject matter, the cast, and the setting – it could have been completely hilarious. Instead, I found all the main characters terrible, and didn’t find enough comedy in this comedy.
5 out of 10 – oh, how I wanted this to be better. Gained points for David Copperfield. Lost points for Wonderstone’s 8 person bed. Gained points for the magicians hanging out in the magician’s bar. Lost points for not enough scenes shot on the strip in Vegas. Lost so many points for having Wilde’s character hook up with Carell’s – ugh.Bonus Video 1, the companion movie to The Prestige, the Illusionist. It came out right around the same time, but in my opinion, wasn’t quite as good.
Bonus Video 2, David Copperfield in action:
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews: