Monday, March 18, 2013

The Cinema File #139: "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" Review

Recently when I reviewed the Sam Raimi film Oz, The Great And Powerful, I began with a rather arch opening line, saying the "we live in a world devoid of magic." Melodrama aside, at the time I was referring to the way in which the illusion and wonder once inherent to film has been lost in the wake of computer generated imaging becoming the norm over practical effects. In the heyday of cinema, much of what we now call special effects were employed using many of the same tricks of the stage magic trade, now with a platform more malleable than any showroom. Maybe its fitting that after a high fantasy film caused me to lose my faith in movie magic, a comedy all about the downward slide of real world magic would serve to brighten my spirits, if only a little bit.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the story of the titular magician, an arrogant bastard in a flamboyant costume, who finds himself tossed from the high life and alienating the few friends he has left after a new cutting edge generation of magical performers takes away his audience. As much as I enjoy the wizards of fantasy, I often find the idea of real life magicians even more fascinating. While the reality is no doubt more mundane than my imagination, to me the discipline evokes images of secret societies and arcane knowledge where con men turn smoke and mirrors and slight of hand into something amazing and often inexplicable. While this film spends a great deal of time in the dark side of commercial magic, where the awe inspiring tricks of childhood are beaten to death in Las Vegas stage shows, it eventually gets around to being a loving tribute to both the moment of seduction when the right card is revealed, and the moment just afterwards when we laugh at ourselves for forgetting how fake it all is.

Post Daily Show, I haven't always enjoyed Steve Carrell as a comic actor. Its not that I find him necessarily bad or annoying, just that it doesn't ever seem like he's given the platform to really shine. I worried about this film going in because it looked like he was playing a character we've seen many times from him before that I've never liked, the boorish oblivious jerk who learns a lesson.  He is very much that, and yet there's enough substance to the rest of it that the same old cliche doesn't grate nearly as much as I expected it would. Mostly this is due to the supporting cast picking up a lot of the slack, with Steve Buscemi being the highlight, turning in a surprisingly heartfelt performance as the downtrodden sidekick. Beyond all the magic and backstabbing, the story is really about the relationship between these two performers who start out as kids with a cheap magic kit and make it big only to lose sight of what it was that made them want to learn magic in the first place.

Before the movie, I got the trailer for Kick Ass 2, and as I was walking out of the theater afterwards, I couldn't help but agree with my PSP colleague Nate's contention that if any year is rife for a Jim Carrey comeback, this is it. His Criss Angel/David Blaine-esque street magician is charismatic enough to have merited a film of his own, and outside of the hilarious final few minutes, his increasingly ridiculous tests of endurance are easily the funniest part of the movie. On my podcast I often speak about how utterly unfazed I am by the supposed charm and grace of recent Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, and Olivia Wilde is one of the reasons why. In a world where someone as stunning and instantly engaging as Olivia Wilde exists, here effortlessly imbuing life and energy into what would have otherwise been a hackneyed stock love interest, we don't need to be heaping so much unearned praise on much less talented performers.

As you may have gathered by now, from a structural standpoint, Burt Wonderstone treads in very familiar territory, so if you're looking for something new and original, this probably won't satisfy that craving. Apart from the clever look inside the magic industry, it plays out like a lot of comedies before it where the mighty fall and learn what's truly meaningful in life. And yet, for the most part, what it does, it does very well. The fact that I could speak at length about everything I liked about it and not even get to the extended Alan Arkin cameo, who can seem to do no wrong at this point, is a testament to how much I enjoyed this film, and believe me when I say this isn't typically the kind of movie I like. Admittedly, our choices for wide release comedies have been slim so far this year, but this is easily one worth seeing while its still in theaters.

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