Quick Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (dir. by Don Scardino)


url-2I don’t have a whole lot to say about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s such a compact, little film, there’s not much I can say without telling everyone the entire story. The trailer is the movie, let’s put it that way.

When I was little, I owned this deck of magic playing cards. On the back of every card was a circular pattern that told the reader what card they were holding, the next card in the deck and the card at the bottom of the set (if they were shuffled correctly). It only lasted a few days, but the effect of doing the trick – that look of amazement when the trick actually worked – was pretty cool. Once that time passed, the trick was stale and predictable.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is kind of like that. It’s a film that probably won’t be very memorable in the long run, especially when you have other films about magic like Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. At the start, it seems awesome, but once the story arcs develop, you may start wondering if you need to stick around for the rest. Truth be told, it’s not a film you have to rush out to see, though there are some scenes to laugh at. On the other hand, if you’re going to the movies just to be entertained, to just laugh for a while, this may be what you’re looking for.

After receiving a magic trick set as kid and watching a training video by the great Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), young Burt Wonderstone decides he’s going to be a magician. He and his new best friend decide to train together over the years, enjoying the tricks until they become The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton. They end up doing so well that they become the headliners for a major Casino for the next 10 years, and this strains their friendship. Anton enjoys the magic for the entertainment it is, and Burt considers himself royalty, feeling a sense of entitlement for all the perks he receives. When Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) appears on the scene with his new tricks, Burt and Anton find themselves facing some serious competition. Can the duo come up with something as amazing as Grey serves up? Can Wonderstone deflate his incredibly huge ego?

The story, written by Johnathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) and John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) is not bad for what it’s offering. Of the last 3 films I’ve seen (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Identity Thief, Jack & the Giant Slayer), it easily has the best pacing, but you can almost close your eyes and dictate what the next scene is going to be. There’s not a whole lot in the way of surprise, story wise…which I guess is what all the magic is for.  Not saying I could ever come up with anything better, though. For the director, Don Scardino, if this is first movie coming off of the 30 Rock episodes he’s done, he does a good job of keeping the story moving. The cast does well, but there’s nothing amazing with anyone here save for Carrey and Arkin. Carrell is basically himself in this film, which works well enough, and I felt that Buscemi was almost reenacting his role from The Big Lebowski. As a group, it seemed to make sense that Buscemi was the straight man to Carrell’s role.

Carrey’s Steve Grey is a lot like a David Blaine or Criss Angel, performing a mixture of illusion and stunt effects.  I have to admit that while I’m not a huge fan of Carrey’s recent efforts, I really don’t think this film would be as fun as it is without him in it. That the movie offers him up in small doses actually helps things. Olivia Wilde was nice as Wonderstone’s new assistant, but I would have liked her to do just a little more, or even better, she could have played a great rival. The same can be said of Alan Arkin, who had me smiling for most of the time he was in the film (though his appearance does kind of leave something of a plot hole in the story, but that’s just me).

The magic itself is more or less hit or miss. Depending on who you’re watching, the “tricks” were either worthy of a chuckle, made you simultaneously laugh and wince (Just about all of Grey’s were that way) or they showed one or two that made the audience at my showing gasp. For those moments, the movie was worth it, and the comedy is definitely there. Overall, I’d see this again if it were on cable or someone showed it to me, but it’s not a film I’d run right back to.

If only I could get that damn Abracadra song out of my head.

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4 responses to “Quick Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (dir. by Don Scardino)

  1. The dilemma with a film such as this, I think, is that the hook that’s going to get people into the cinema is the magic tricks. Now, when we witness a magic show live, it bedazzles and fascinates because we’re left wondering “how did they do that”?

    However, with a film such as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, potentially some of that fascination is gone. We know how films are made, how they are shot from various angles, spliced together, plus there’s the added shortcut nowadays of having computer-generated special effects as a visual shortcut. The knowledge that it’s a film as opposed to a live magic show reduces some of the wow factor of the legerdemain on display.

    (You know, I’ve been waiting YEARS to use “legerdemain” in a sentence in an appropriate manner).

    You can tell from the trailer that some of the magic tricks (e.g. the fireball, the trick with the bird) are special effects (and to me, anyway, painfully obvious special effects).
    The actual “look” of effects aside, the fireball bit “feels” less like what a real “illusionist magician” would do and more like sorcery that one may associate with a Harry Potter film. Once you start making the magic tricks too fanciful, you step into the realm of magical realism, which is something entirely different to the craft of an illusionist.

    I’m not suggesting the “magic on film” can’t draw a gasp from an audience, it depends how it’s presented. For example, there’s a scene in “Nashville” where the mute Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum) makes the salt (or is it sugar?) disappear from sight. It’s a trick done without special effects and the camera trained on Goldblum in such a way that you know it’s a “real” trick (and because of this it was a genuine moment of astonishment for me). My point being that if the magic tricks in a film like “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” were merely the result of clever cutting and CGI, the hook of the film would lose its grasp pretty quickly.

  2. Thank you for the reply, Mark. I agree with you on the CGI usage. I understand why they went with it – we’re dealing with actors and comedians. I really liked that salt shaker one, though. I didn’t quite have the feeling with this that I did with The Illusionist – that sense of awe. I saw The Prestige first, and loved how the tricks were broken down into their separate parts. There were some subtle illusions and slight of hand tricks that were amazing.

    The Illusionist was something different. Even though most of that had to be digital, they were presented in such a way that (for me, anyway) one could just go with it. I do love that film.

  3. Lo and behold, the very next day, I saw a tram covered in “Burt Wonderstone” propaganda (just after having seen “Anna Karenina”). The film opens here within the next few weeks, I believe.

    As ordinary as I found Christopher Nolan films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”, I really did enjoy “The Prestige” very much–it was one of those films that I saw without knowing much at all about it. But I feel that “The Prestige” put a lot of stock in both the story and “the twist” as opposed to simply dazzling one with visual wizardry (something that Nolan seemed to forget after the first half-hour with “Inception”).

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