DIRECTED BY DON SCARDINO
STARRING: STEVE CARELL, STEVE BUSCEMI, OLIVIA WILDE, JIM CARREY with JAMES GANDOLFINI and ALAN ARKIN
I like to think we’re on a low-tide of humour, lately. This is not to say that Hollywood hasn't been trying. This is to say that most efforts at comedy have been futile, with studios having to turn to the trusted lot to work it out for them. When I say ‘work it out’, I am not talking about box-office returns. I am talking about a funny film that’s actually funny, like ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ which rides on some of the funniest men in Hollywood.
I write this in the aftermath of ‘the Hangover’, of films that have sincerely tried, which have been pushed and pummeled ahead by the financially turbo-charged studio that would do anything for a laugh – anything but anything remotely funny, that is. I write this in the wake of having encountered people like Jason Sudeikis on screen. I write this in the era of the R-rated rom-com where mainstream actors try their hands at comedy, going for your leg but pulling the rug from under your feet instead. I am not lying when I say I have been more disappointed in this so-called comedy lately than even, say, ‘Man of Steel’ where Superman doesn’t realize the joke’s actually on him.
It is precisely in this department that ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ works. It is a funny film that is actually funny, and that’s wonderful, given current standards.
Even otherwise, ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ is an incredible film experience. It is directed by Don Scardino who has directing credits for half the episodes of the Tina Fey vehicle '30 Rock' – possibly the only show I have followed from beginning to glorious end. Though we barely get past star performances on a TV show, Scardino’s ability to run a gag in the subtlest manner possible is evident in almost all episodes that he has directed/overseen on '30 Rock'. And he brings the weight of that experience with directing comedy into a film that desperately needs a hand like that.
Plot-wise, there is nothing incredible about ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’. Have you watched the Pixar film ‘Cars’? For the sheer delight of wacky storytelling and an inimitable message that John Lasseter delivered through automobiles in a man-eat-man world, ‘Cars’ would rank highest on my list of favourite animated movies. Anyway, that trivia aside, I could take ‘Cars’ and ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’, put them side by side and match each plot detail, one after another. Rockstar protagonist who’s lost his love for the game to some fame that he later realizes is inconsequential? Check. Endearing sidekick who lasts till the very end and might possibly have a sequel written around him? Check. Feisty lady-love who’s probably the most normal character, a buffer between the quick and the dead? Check. Moronic, mindless buffoon of a bad guy who’s meant to make your focus clear and not just be defeated? Check. Yesteryear legend who comes around to up the game of the present day, preferably on the hero’s side? Check.
Let me tell you that having made all these comparisons and perhaps having realized that ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ is a live-action rendition of ‘Cars’ at best doesn’t change my mind about how good a film it is, because – and let me tell you this too – it is a good film. It has everything that makes a good film good, and this might sound laughable at first. Every film has that, right? Every ‘good film’, at least? I don’t think so. The summer’s biggest film event (read ‘Man of Steel’) stands as a cutting example.
‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ has Steve Carell play a truly incredible Burt Wonderstone. If there is one man who acts while simultaneously providing a commentary on his acting, it is Carell. Like Owen Wilson did with his voice to Lightning McQueen, Carell accentuates Burt Wonderstone with body language that calls for attention to itself. He is the performer who performs while drawing attention to his performance and the fact that he is, actually, performing. Steve Buscemi as Wonderstone’s partner and magical friend Anton Marvelton is the exact opposite – he is the Mater in this movie, oblivious to his own innocence. Olivia Wilde is beautiful as Jane/Nicole, the aspiring starlet magician who sees the human being in the money-machine that is Burt Wonderstone and has the heart to sit him down and talk.
Two performances need mention. First is the late James Gandolfini as the casino magnate Doug Munny, who is so ruthless it’s actually funny. Gandolfini’s performance and an uneventful death has made me consider watching ‘the Sopranos’. I guess I’d get around to it as time permits, but here as Doug, the over-achieving shark, Gandolfini joins the likes of Andy Garcia and Al Pacino in their respective stints as bad guy in the Ocean’s series. He is unbelievable.
The second performance is that of Alan Arkin, who’s the funny equivalent of Paul Newman’s Doc. Hudson in ‘Cars’. Arkin plays Rance Holloway, a former Vegas headliner who lost it for his magic, went into oblivion and, later, to an old age home that Burt Wonderstone ends up performing in. Coincidentally, Holloway has been Wonderstone’s role model and the reason he took up magic in the first place. Together, the two of them contribute to Wonderstone’s rediscovery as Arkin belts out some of the funniest sequences in the film, including and especially his final ‘disappearing act’.
Out of the six main characters, I have thus knowingly and with full awareness left out one, perhaps the most eye-capturing of performances. Jim Carrey as Steven Gray the ‘Brain Rapist’ (a clear parody of Criss Angel: Mind-Freak, where I thought Wonderstone himself sounded a lot like David Copperfield) might own the role, but the character is as insignificant to ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ as Chick Hicks was to ‘Cars’. It has to do with the fact that Wonderstone’s problem is with himself and not with competition. Success here gets redefined as his ability to rediscover the magic in himself, which he will and does, with or without Steven Gray. There is a scene where Gray and Wonderstone have a war of words and Wonderstone tells Gray that what he does is “not magic, it is monkey porn.” I took that as a subtle comment on Carrey’s own presence and performance, even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be that. To see Carrey invest in such a second-rung character was pitiful to say the least.
But that doesn’t spoil the fun one bit, and I take the liberty to say here that it is all Steve Carell. Mr. Carell is the perfect reaction-comic. He’s someone who can make stupid knock, knock jokes work, because he’d have the best things to say in return. By that I mean he’d have the worst things to say in response and they would end up being funny, only adding to his character. I’m still haunted by some of his comebacks in ‘Date Night’ as I write this line; as James Franco’s incredulous statement rings: “Is that all you’ve got? Is that your best line?” Carell thus complements Carrey’s monkey-act like nobody can; like nobody ever will.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that there could be a sequel, and that if there was a sequel, I’d watch it. I would like it to be called ‘The Remarkable Anton Marvelton’ with a bigger part played by ‘The Astonishing Jane’ as Burt Wonderstone sits a quiet life teaching magic to children, heading the Holloway School of Magic. This would mean a return of all these men (and woman) to save Hollywood again from the clutches of its evil witches of comedy, their laughs mirthless. And I would love for that film to be directed by the Skillful Mr. Scardino again – the man behind this self-parody, who performs his tricks as well as he makes fun of them; who is both the Farrelly Brothers on steroids, minus the shit humour.