I know I was hard on Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, but one aspect of that film I can find no fault with is James Franco’s preparation – in order to become a money-grubbing sideshow magician, he actually learned sleight of hand, and it shows.
You would think a movie about actual Las Vegas magic-show performers would prepare similarly. You would, at least, if you were optimistic rather than realistic. And then you see Steve Carell pluck a giant coin that’s obviously CGI from behind a kid’s ear, and you groan, because digital effects, at least when not done perfectly, are easier to see through than the illusions of David Copperfield. Most of us know a good magic show isn’t really breaking the laws of nature, but we’re damned if can figure out how they do it. In the case of The Incredible Burt Wondesrtone, it’s all too depressingly clear that they did what no stage performer gets to do – they fixed it in post. And you can still see the metaphorical wires.
No, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that a movie starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey isn’t funny. What I will tell you is that it isn’t as funny as it ought to be. You’ll laugh, most likely, when Carell says stuff like, “I said ‘no offense,’ therefore you cannot be offended!”; it’s one of those on-the-nose jokes that works for its unabashed honesty, and there’s a bit where Carell and Steve Buscemi keep accidentally inhaling a knockout drug that’s golden, but also should have been pushed past the point of repetitive absurdity to be truly classic.
However, it’s not just that director Don Scardino (30 Rock) and writers Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses) augment the trickery with digital effects, but that they don’t even seem to have thought through how particular tricks would work. Carrey’s Steve Gray, a street magician with a show called “Brain Rapist” who’s equal parts Criss Angel, David Blaine and Johnny Knoxville, busts out a stunt early on where he cuts his face open and draws out a pre-selected playing card. It’s the kind of thing Penn and Teller would do, except for this – throughout the rest of the movie, his wound is surgically stitched up, and it becomes apparent that he actually did cut himself open and require medical attention. So how did the card get in there? It doesn’t matter that I don’t know, but I do need to have a plausible sense that the filmmakers know. And I don’t; it feels like we’re not supposed to question it.
The dilemma here is whether or not to have the magicians be realistic or fantastical. Either way, that choice needs to be committed to. If they can do things without explanation, just go all out and give them actual supernatural powers, but if you’re going to play it real, don’t show me a computer-generated dove emerging from a saltshaker.
That’s the movie’s biggest problem. It isn’t the only one.
Burt Wonderstone begins the movie as a kid who’s picked on (and has a far less majestic surname, but the press kit doesn’t have it written down and I forgot to make note. Something like “Winterschtein.”), and who bonds with another shy kid, who will grow up to be Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton, over magic. So far, so good. They’re underdog heroes.
But then, as a grown-up, Burt is an a-hole. This is admittedly truer to life than many lovable underdog tales, but it also makes the story’s arc harder to believe. Because of humiliations, he’s suddenly a better person? Because of one apology, Olivia Wilde goes from hating him to hopping into bed with him? That’s harder to buy than the CGI dove.
(Wilde, by the way, is totally beautiful and charming in this, though she never wears the cute outfits the teaser posters have her in. If you have a thing for ladies in lucha masks, though…)
Then in the black hat, we have Carrey’s character, who is an utterly one-dimensional stupid jerk, and whose comeuppance is entirely his own fault. There’s no humanizing of him where there easily could be – Burt’s a dick, so it wouldn’t be hard to give him an antagonist who’s mildly sympathetic and thereby complicate the dynamic a bit. But no, Steve is just dickier.
Now, it could be that I’m being unnecessarily demanding on my magic movies, as I didn’t care for The Prestige’s sudden detour into sci-fi and cloning either. But setting a movie in this world requires research, not just of the personalities involved but the trick techniques as well. How does Carrey vomit forth endless (non-puke covered) candy as a human pinata, or how would he in the real world? I don’t know, and I suspect the writers don’t either – they just wanted a gross-out gag.
There are some fun supporting turns here: James Gandolfini as the ultimate absent father, Jay Mohr as a low-rent magic comic who can’t ever quite tell a joke properly (and isn’t it ironic that he’s still funnier than most of the polished humor on display?) and Alan Arkin as the original magician who inspires Burt, particularly funnily in flashbacks under a bad toupee and thick makeup for el cheapo de-aging effect. I don’t think the acting is the problem here, but the material. Fool me twice, shame on me; fool me never, and you shouldn’t be in the prestidigitation game.