Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey
Oh PG-13 comedies, how you have scorned me over the years. Sure, the genre has given the world Pitch Perfect, Easy A, and the highly underrated City Island, but you have also given it All About Steve, The Green Hornet, and almost all of Adam Sandler’s film of late. Really, is it that hard to make a funny comedy while staying away from excessive uses of profanity, gore, or, something the MPAA loves to hammer down on, nudity or sex? Well hey! Maybe The Incredible Burt Wonderstone can give me some hope! Look at the cast: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin. Those are some big names in comedy. What could possibly go wrong with them on board? Weeeelll….a lot. A lot can go wrong.
The premise is pretty much the Will Ferrell movie Mad Lib. (insert famous comedian) plays (insert weird character name), a powerful/famous/big-time (insert odd occupation) who (insert bad personality trait) He is on top of the world when (insert something that hinders them) causing him to fall from grace. He must learn from his mistakes and win the (insert event that will give him back his power), along with the help of (insert love interest) and (insert miscallanous sidekick/role model/etc.) Pretty much if you filled in the plot of Burt Wonderstone into this you would get the following result: Steve Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, a famous magician who is a complete dick. He is on top of the world when a new magician, Steve Gray, steals his audience, his partner, Anton, leaves him and the act, and he gets fired from his job performing at a big hotel. He must learn from his mistakes and win the contest his former boss is holding to decide which magician will headline at his new hotel with the help of his assistant Jane and his idol Rance Holloway. Hijinks ensue!
Yeah if you have seen Blades of Glory, Semi Pro, or any of Will Ferrell’s other films from the 2000’s, then you have seen this movie before. You will know what will happen as the movie progresses, that’s how cliché it is. Sure, the magician angle is pretty original. The homages to street magicians Criss Angel and David Blaine in the form of Jim Carrey’s character and to old school magicians in the form of both of the Steve’s characters are cool. And even some of the tricks are cool (specifically the Hangman trick at the beginning of Burt and Anton’s show.) But we’ve seen this all before. Guys a jerk, he falls from grace, he has to redeem himself, lather, rinse, and repeat. But of course what a comedy lacks in originality has to make up for with great jokes and heart? Yeah no. I chuckled a few times during this movie, mainly whenever Jim Carrey came on screen and the 3 jokes I counted that take a shot at Steve Buscemi’s character’s looks (Side note: I’m sorry for laughing at that, please don’t kill me Steve!) but most of them fall flat on its face. As for heart, well there is some at the end but most of the time any heart or likeability is sucked away by Carrell’s characters ego. It has its moments, sure, but the ones that hurt the movie hurt it badly.
Now for what is going to be my favorite part of this review: ripping into Steve Carell’s character. I am not a fan of Steve Carell only because he doesn’t seem like a likeable person in real life. When I watch interviews for other comedians like Will Ferrell, Russell Brand, Bill Hader, and even Adam Sandler, I think “they seem really cool and down to earth. I would love to hang out with them.” Carell, on the other hand, doesn’t. I don’t know what makes me dislike him so much but for whatever reason I just find him unlikeable. However, this does not stop me from watching his films. I’ve only seen this and Dinner for Schmucks, and even though it’s a mediocre at best film, I liked him in it. In Burt Wonderstone, though, he is SO UNLIKEABLE. His character is a complete jerk and not even a likeable jerk. You never sympathise with him. When he loses his best friend, you don’t care. When he loses his job and suite, you don’t care. When he ends up broke, living in a cheap motel and working at an old folks home, YOU DON’T CARE. There is nothing redeemable about this character and Carell does not help a bit. If maybe he made Burt likeable then we could have been invested in his story. But no, we get a jerk who is a jerk for no reason and who only goes through a change cause the script calls for it. The rest of the cast, while they are more likeable than Carell’s character, don’t have much either. Steve Buscemi, one of my favorite actors, who plays Anton is barely in it and when he is, he doesn’t add anything. He does a good job and it is refreshing to see him play a nice guy for a change but anyone could have played that role. Olivia Wilde is likeable as Burt and Anton’s assistant but while she too does a good job, she adds nothing and is only there to serve as the mandatory love interest. Alan Arkin, who plays Rance Holloway, is good in his scenes (I’m just going to state he that that’s going to be a recurring theme for this paragraph) but he is barely in it and adds nothing (another recurring theme). Even when *SPOILER ALERT* his character has a freaking stroke, it doesn’t serve anything to the plot, we never see how he recovers from it so that he could participate in the ending, and it just disappears after the scene is over. The late great James Gandolfini is in this movie (what ended up being his last film before he died) as Burt and Anton's boss, but he is only there to serve as part of the conflict. And as for Jim Carrey….well he’s the best character in this film. Every time he was on screen I laughed and then cringed because his character is nuts, then laughed again. Sadly though he is barely in it. Hopefully Kick Ass 2 helps him get the comeback he deserves (even though his latest twitter antics may hinder it.)
As I said before the jokes are hit and miss. The first third of the film I laughed a lot, mainly because the jokes worked with the situation and it didn’t (usually) go for a cheap laugh. However, as soon as Anton leaves, it became boring and unfunny. Some jokes worked well (specifically when Alan Arkin asks Jim Carrey “What the f*ck is a dream-reality?”) others are just lame. There were some good scenes during the last 2 thirds (especially the one where Burt and Jane, Olivia Wilde’s character, are walking down the Vegas strip talking about their lives growing up as magicians) but others are cringe worthy (mainly the hot coals scene and when Burt and Anton reunite. Fake, over-the-top crying never made me cringe so much.) With that being said, I liked almost all of the tricks in the film. The Hangman trick at the beginning is incredible, it was interesting seeing how the sword through the box trick worked, and most of Jim Carrey character’s tricks, especially the first one with the card, were frightening. No wonder his character’s nickname was the Brain Rapist. The ending tricks for both Jim Carrey’s Steve Gray and Burt and Anton (which I won’t spoil) are great. Steve Gray’s made me cringe until I couldn’t feel my shoulders, and then laugh at the aftermath. As for Burt and Anton’s it was something that would amaze me if it happened to me in real life. It was a great trick that deserved to be the final trick of the film.
Now I am not asking much when it comes to comedies, especially PG-13 ones. I am not a huge fan of gross out humor so seeing a good comedy without it would be great! TV seems to have gotten it right, with some of my favorite shows being Arrested Development, Portlandia, and Raising Hope. All I want is for a film to make me laugh because really, nothing is worse than an unfunny comedy, except maybe an not scary horror movie. After seeing the trailer for this, I hoped to god that this wouldn’t disappoint but sadly it did, only getting a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, making around 22 million at the box office, and getting beaten on its opening weekend by The Call. Now, 3 months after its release, my instinct was kind of right. It’s enjoyable at best, cringe worthy at its worse, the actors, even if they have little to do, are good, the jokes that work work, and if you can get past the oversized ego of its title character, it does a good enough job. Maybe someday it will become a cult hit with a big fanbase or a film that will get a lot more attention on Netflix, but for now it is what it is: a sometimes funny film, other times a waste of time. It’s a good enough watch if you feel like having a lazy day or you’re sick and you need to shut your brain off, but it isn’t something I would watch again. You win this round comedy hell….