I blame Anchorman. Nine years on, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s newsroom masterpiece is still the torch bearer for how good we can have it. How inspired and offbeat a comedy ensemble can be when it tries hard enough.
It’s also a marker for what to do with Steve Carrell when you’re not having him be the put-upon everyman, the sad sucker forced to deal with more than he wants to. In Anchorman, his Brick Tamland was like a pre-cursor to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in Avengers Assemble: ‘Hey, let’s give this guy the movie’s killer moments, but not have him be on screen that much’.
It went against his stock-in-trade that’s worked pretty well for the most part (‘Be a spy!’; ‘Lose your virginity!’; ‘Let Ryan Gosling teach you how to be a lady-killer!’) and maybe not so well at other times (‘Build an ark while we put you in banal situations and surround you with characters who aren’t funny’).
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a Steve Carrell film that deviates from this Steve Carrell norm, but, sadly, it’s no Anchorman. It’s no Dinner For Schmucks either (another non-Steve Carrell Steve Carrell film), but frankly that’s a good thing. It has a nicer heart than that, especially in the opening moments when it conjures up a lovely sense of nostalgia for a time when VHS was cutting edge.
It finds a sweet way to introduce us to a young Burt and his best friend Anton Marvelton (eventually played by Steve Buscemi) – for them, a do-it-yourself magic box-set opens up a world far beyond that of school bullies and absent parents – and then shows us their rise to the top in a series of magic skits before settling on a ‘present day’ timeline. Burt and Anton are masters of their craft, there’s a new challenger on the scene threatening to dethrone them (Jim Carrey’s street magician Steve Gray), and a possible love interest in Olivia Wilde as magician’s assistant Jane.
Story structures in place, characters established, conflict hinted at. Here begins the movie proper, right? Well, not quite. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone starts with a few sketches, and then forgets to actually tell an interesting story. It just continues along in the same vein, magic sketch followed by magic sketch followed by magic sketch. Fun for a while, but very wearing soon after, and hamstrung by the screenwriters’ insistence that for this character arc, we’re going to have Burt be an asshole. Not just any asshole, either; a pompous, not-that-funny one. Good choice. That’ll be someone we want to spend an hour and a half with.
You can see where they’re coming from: have the audience see the innocent, good-natured Burt as a child, show the corrupting power of fame turn him into a bit of a douche, then rehabilitate him in time for a nice pay-off. But Burt Wonderstone the film has to live with Burt Wonderstone the asshole for a long time. It’s like those romantic comedies where there’s a misunderstanding, or an equally annoying plot mechanism, that stop the two leads getting together. Somewhere there’s a screenwriting-logic robot churning out this stuff: ‘Must have obvious character development. Must stretch out conflict to produce more emotionally satisfying third act.’
It means that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone feels kind of flat for far too long, leaving Buscemi to struggle with an underwritten straight man role next to Carrell’s rarely-funny comedic lead. Director Don Scardino pulls two rabbits out of his hat, though: Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin. The latter, as famed magician Rance Holloway, adds real warmth, cutting through the arrogance of Carrell’s Wonderstone with the same matter-of-factness he brought to Argo and Little Miss Sunshine.
Best, though, is Carrey’s Steve Gray. He may be a David Blaine pastiche about ten years too late, but this is Ace Ventura-era Carrey, wild and over-the-top and brilliantly unpredictable. When he magically floats away after a head-to-head with Wonderstone, you realise that he’s the Brick Tamland here, a scene-stealing Hulk delivering Burt Wonderstone’s truly memorable moments.
It makes you wish for more of that. Not from Carrey – you sense there’s not much more to his Steve Gray that he hasn’t already covered in about 15 minutes of screen time – but from The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. For all its talk about the awe-inspiring wonder of magic, Scardino’s film hasn’t got much up its sleeve to amaze us.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is released in cinemas on Friday 15th March.
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