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SXSW Review: Dated, Deeply Unfunny ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ Can’t Conjure Comedy Magic

SXSW Review: Dated, Deeply Unfunny 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' Can't Conjure Comedy Magic

There are some movies that seem hopelessly outdated, either because of their subject matter or filmmaking style (or both), and they’re usually marked by having the unfortunate luck of cashing in on some zeitgeist-capturing craze or cultural moment slightly past its expiration date. But “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a new “comedy” that stars Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey as bickering magicians, feels completely unmoored from societal trends and things that people are generally interested in. It seems to be trying to send up the Las Vegas showmen of the ’60s and ’70s while simultaneously trying to satirize the David Blaine and Criss Angel-style illusionists of the world, whose own mini-moment passed eons ago. When David Copperfield shows up for a “hilarious” cameo (a gag completely dependent on his notoriety as a superstar magician in the late ’80s), I immediately thought, Does anyone even know who this guy is anymore? It’s evocative of what makes “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” such an incredible slog – it’s a comedy so out of touch that jokes disappear before they’re even delivered, as if by magic.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” begins with a prolonged flashback to the titular magician as a child – his dad is gone, his mom works all the time, and he’s obsessed with a magic set from his hero, magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). He’s got one friend in the world, an equally strange youngster named Anton. And they really love magic. The flashback opening is incredibly long but doesn’t deliver anything meaty; it’s all poorly photographed exposition. After a brief stop along their career highway, where the two grown magicians (now played by Carell and Buscemi) dazzle a casino owner (James Gandolfini), we see the magicians as they are today: headlining a gaudy, overly choreographed show on the Sunset Strip, wearing rhinestone-encrusted tuxes and thick manes of bleach-streaked hair.

These early scenes are actually quite promising – their onstage banter is so rote that it’s pretty hilarious, complete with canned jokes and painfully bad dancing to “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller (of course). Both Buscemi and Carell pull off the aged performer routine with zingy knowingness, their costumes and hair giving you more information about the characters than any actual back story ever could. They’ve been on that stage a thousand times before, and at this point are barely-functioning animatronic figures, ones with squeaky joints and costumes that have long gone out of style. They give it their all because they still love magic, but they’re shells of their former selves.

It doesn’t help that they’re total jerks, too – firing an assistant mid-show and recruiting another person from their team to fill in (this thankless role is played by Olivia Wilde, given even less to do than she normally does). After their performance, Gandolfini brings them into his office and tells them that they’ve got to make changes to their show in order to bring in younger audiences, or else they’re going to be fired. Anton is aghast and quits, while Burt soldiers on, attempting the show as a solo act, to disastrous results. A new magician is on the scene, too, a “street magician” named Steve Gray (Carrey) who has a cable show called “Mind Rapist” (yes seriously) and whose biggest notoriety has come from holding in his pee for days on end. This is exactly as hilarious as it sounds.

This is clearly Carell’s attempt at playing a sympathetic jerk role in the mode of Ron Burgundy, but Burt Wonderstone is such a bumbling asshole and so far removed from the sweet little kid the filmmakers present at the beginning of the movie that it’s hard to connect. Early on, he lures a young woman (Gillian Jacobs) back to his hotel room, and the sequence is ugly and unfunny, and the entire mood of the movie switches to something hopelessly sleazy and atonal. Wonderstone is supposed to redeem himself when he starts performing at an old folks’ home, which, in one of the thousand instances of implausible coincidence, also houses his old hero – Rance Holloway. It’s with Rance that Burt starts to get his mojo back and mend the broken relationships in his life, including an outrageously far-fetched romance with Wilde (a woman 22 years his junior).

The movie climaxes in a giant magician duel. The prize? A headlining spot at Gandolfini’s new hotel, Doug (way to stick it to Steve Wynn, guys!). There’s no rhyme or reason to this and the entire competition is introduced literally fifteen minutes before the movie is over, so there’s nothing to actually build towards it and no sense of tension or accomplishment as the magicians put on a wonderful show (even if it doesn’t involve actual magic, something that they had been deriding Carrey’s character for the whole movie). Like everything else in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” things just happen, without any reasoning or explanation. The climax is incredibly off-kilter as well, swerving into dark and unfunny territory before the credits role. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” was directed by Don Scardino, whose credits include extensive work on “30 Rock,” a show that balances absurdity and heart with far more aplomb than this movie. Nothing in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” works; there are flashes of when it seems that it could be faintly tolerable but those drift into the ether, along with rabbits and folded up playing cards. It’s satirizing – for some reason, in the year 2013 – magic culture, something that is so far outside of the mainstream that it doesn’t even deserve ridicule. I wish I could make “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” disappear. Forever. [F]  

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