The Magic’s Back
By Carl Kozlowski
It’s been a terrible year for movies, with the only film I truly enjoyed, The Identity Thief, taking in $100 million at the box office. Week after week, the incredible lack of effort on display has been astonishing, even in productions with more than one star (the Russell Crowe-Mark Wahlberg dud Broken City immediately comes to mind). Even last week’s smash hit, Oz, fell flat.
Just as I was wondering what happened to the “magic” of film, particularly after the outstanding crop of 2012, along comes The Incredible Burt Wonderstone to restore my lagging faith in Hollywood.
Starring Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as a Siegfried and Roy-style magician team working the Las Vegas Strip, Wonderstone impresses from beginning to end by taking viewers into a world that’s rarely seen, then having audaciously dark and witty fun with it.
With Carell in the title role and Buscemi as his sidekick, Anton Markleton, the film starts out by showing the pair as young boys who were extreme social losers until Burt’s mother gifts him a magic instruction set created by star TV magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).
Yet, even as Burt and Anton later in life achieve huge success with a 15-year run as the house show at Bally’s Casino, success turns Burt into an egotistical monster out of touch with the times. Faced with competition from a Jackass-inspired freak named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), whose hit cable show is making Burt and Anton look completely outdated, the not-so-dynamic duo attempt an outrageous publicity stunt that backfires in hilariously embarrassing fashion, destroying their friendship and careers.
With Anton jetting off to the Third World in a misguided effort to improve the lives of poor children by giving them magic sets instead of clean water and food, Burt is left to fend for himself in the real world. When he takes a gig doing magic for a senior living home packed with former entertainers, he meets his boyhood hero, Holloway, and starts a comeback rooted in doing magic for the right reasons.
Wonderstone is a refreshing wonder itself, not only due to the energetic performances of Carell, Buscemi and Carrey—all playing against type with ridiculous wigs and costumes—but also because there are very few scenes that feel like they’ve been done elsewhere. But it’s Arkin, continuing a late-career streak that has scored him one Oscar win (Little Miss Sunshine) and another nomination (Argo), who should really wow audiences as an embittered old man who regains his youthful joy.
From start to finish, writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who also wrote the hilarious hit Horrible Bosses) provide unconventional settings and uniquely crafted characters that inhabit a version of the world that is often ridiculous but somehow always believable on its own terms.
They also show great improvement on their already solid writing skills by dialing down that movie’s overly raunchy moments while keeping gasp-inducing wit in the dialogue. Meanwhile, director Don Scardino makes his feature film debut after a long career directing some of the best TV sitcoms, including a slew of 30 Rock episodes, giving it all a zany energy that isn’t afraid to occasionally reveal the emotions behind the curtains of even the splashiest stage shows.