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.

A Dissapointing One Night Stand: Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (dir by Lorene Scafaria)

As a film, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is kinda like this cute guy that I once sat behind in a creative writing class.  He talked so passionately about his writing that it made it even more disappointing when he finally showed me what he had written and it turned out to be the blandest rip-off of Kerouac that I had ever read.  Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World has such a  great trailer and such a great cast that it’s impossible not to be disappointed even more than usual that the actual film is mediocre.

The opening scene of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World finds Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife parked off the side of the road, listening to a news report informing them that, in 20 days, a gigantic asteroid named Matilda is going to crash into the Earth and end existence as we know it.  Dodge responds to the news by saying that he thinks that he missed their exit on the highway.  His wife responds by silently getting out of the car and running away into the night, never to be seen again.  It’s a brilliant opening and it filled me with false hope for the rest of the film.

Anyway, Dodge continues to go about his life even as the countdown to end of it commences.  He goes to work, he goes to a depressing dinner party, and occasionally, he stops moving long enough to watch another random person commit suicide in front of him.  Yes, Dodge is pretty depressed but luckily, there’s a manic pixie dream girl (Kiera Knightley) living in the apartment below him.  When rioting breaks out, he and Knightley escape to the countryside where they search for both Dodge’s high school girlfriend and an airplane to allow Knightley to fly back to England and see her parents.  Along the way, they fall in love and the entire film pretty much falls apart.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is at its best during the first fourth of the film when the emphasis is on dark humor and the absurdity of the situation that Dodge has found himself in.  Unfortunately, once Carell and Knightley leave the city and find themselves traveling through the most prosaic countryside imaginable, the film seems to be unsure of just what exactly it wants to be.  The mix of dark humor and uplifting message is an awkward one and the end result is an uneven film that, ultimately, is just too bland to suggest that we should care that the world’s going to end.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly forgive Steve Carell for leaving The Office and turning my favorite TV show into The Ed Helms Show.  However, when I blink enough times that I can actually look at things from a perspective beyond my own selfish concerns, I can see that Carell made the right decision.  Steve Carell is a film star and that’s proven by the fact that, even when he’s appearing in a mediocre film, he’s still compelling to watch.  As uneven as Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is, Carell gives an excellent performance.  I think the secret to Steve Carell’s on-screen charisma is that he’s got the saddest eyes in the movies.  There’s a sense of real sadness and regret to every character that Steve Carell has ever played and, as a result, he can make the weakest of material seem poignant.  As disappointing as Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is, it remains watchable and that’s almost totally due to Steve Carell.