The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
1 out of 4 stars
In the space of 100 or so minutes, longtime TV director Don Scardino and a committee of four screenwriters pull off a dubious feat no filmmaker would ever try to do on purpose. They made a mainstream "comedy" with a lead protagonist that is completely unlikeable and decidedly unfunny. This blunder is all the more shocking considering they did it with one of the funniest, most talented and likeable actors imaginable (Steve Carell).
If you take a look at Carell's resume, you'll notice a common thread: he tends to play flawed characters that are dim, ignorant, confused, clueless and/or frustrated, yet all of them are endearingly human. Even the most abrasive character Carell has ever played (Michael in "The Office") was still relatable and fun to watch. Compared to the title character Carell plays in "TIBW," Michael comes off as positively Gandhi.
After 10 years at the top of the Las Vegas entertainment food chain, Burt and partner Anton (Steve Buscemi) are stuck in a time warp, having seen their audience dwindle, their competition grow stronger and their passion for magic evaporate. For reasons that are never explored but can rightfully be attributed to complacency, boredom and a gargantuan, misplaced ego, Burt severs ties with the milquetoast but genial Anton, gets fired from Bally's and in short order finds himself hawking paper towels while performing rudimentary tricks at a Big Lots store.
For the duration of his downward career trajectory Burt remains taciturn, mean, gruff, shallow, vacant, delusional, hurtful and completely self-absorbed. It is only after bottoming out while entertaining seniors at an old-age home does he wake up. It is there where Burt comes face to face with Rance (Alan Arkin), the magician that inspired him as a kid. At this point we're only about an hour into the movie but it is too late. Burt has turned us off too much to ever root for him or his emotional/spiritual reawakening. The transformation from loathsome and sarcastically droll to placidly sincere is instant and not at all believable.
Joining Buscemi and Arkin in the likeability camp is the lovely Olivia Wilde as Jane (who Burt bizarrely addresses as Nicole), a magician's assistant with big dreams of her own. All three of the "nice" characters are given little to do or say that is substantial and thus become insignificant throwaways.
While written as foils, Jim Carrey (as Steve Gray) and James Gandolfini (as Doug Munny) are still funnier and far more interesting than Carell's Burt. A gonzo performance artist based on Criss Angel, Gray's niche isn't even magic but rather masochism and self mutilation. He shoots his reality show called (really) "Brain Rapist" guerilla-style on the streets of Vegas and doesn't realize that he's little more than a fleeting fad posing as a train wreck. Carrey -- long past his star prime -- throws himself a little too much into the part.
Even with a different name, wardrobe, haircut and accent, Gandolfini's Munny is just another variation on Tony Soprano and as you might expect he steals every scene he's in. Munny -- modeled after guys like Steve Wynne and Donald Trump -- is also the only character in the movie that isn't written as a cliche or caricature.
As this is an assembly line, by-the-numbers "crowd pleaser," "TIBW" serves up the obligatory, faux-uplift ending that misses its mark as much as the rest of the film, but in a different way. Without getting into details, it involves the surreptitious use of drugs that is not only illegal, but pitifully desperate and certainly unethical.
Sadly, "TIBW" probably won't be the worst movie of 2013, but it's unlikely any comedy with an equally high-profile and talented cast could come close to eclipsing its low level of effort, sincerity and execution. (Warner Bros.)