Film Reviews

How Did Burt Wonderstone Make Steve Carell's Awesomeness Disappear?

Steve Carell's gift is for men who might drown in their own obliviousness. Like his Daily Show reporter, or The Office's Michael Scott, his 40-year-old virgin lived in terror that someone might catch on to the fact that he knows nothing about subjects he purports to have mastered. When his virgin apes just-us-guys talk and insists that breasts feel like bags of sand, our laughter isn't just at his absurd cluelessness. It's at Carell the performer's ability to lay bare our near-universal impulse to lie to cover up our own ignorance, at the way we're implicated in this human failing.

Carell again plays oblivious in the fitfully inspired magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but he doesn't play human. As the magician of the title, he's a dick David Copperfield on the decline, a third-rate casino act done up in chintzy velvet and grinding through the same tricks in the same show he's been doing for a decade. It's amusing that Carell left The Office in part to do a movie about the kind of guy who would never leave The Office; what's less amusing is that Wonderstone — unlike that virgin — has absolutely no idea that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. That means we never get those moments of broad but recognizable behavior. Instead, Wonderstone is all jackass, cruel and dumb, capable only of the most selfish and least inventive responses, which stiffs the several long scenes of him sexually harassing poor Olivia Wilde (as Wonderstone's assistant) or berating Steve Buscemi (as Wonderstone's bickering partner in magic). It's a Will Ferrell-style part played by an actor lacking abandon. Carell never looks like his Wonderstone is into the comic horribleness.

At the start, Wonderstone stands near the top of his magician world. Thanks to hubris and bad investments, he loses everything and then has to claw back. This being a mainstream Hollywood comedy, there's also a rote redemptive arc.

Inevitably, Wonderstone rediscovers the spirit of his childhood, finds something to believe in and even gets the girl he's been awful to since the first reel, a development we're presumably meant to applaud. All this blooming-into-a-better-person stuff gives Carell the chance to return to the mode of several of his more serious comedies, one also often aspired to by Robin Williams, and one that isn't all that human either: that of the wounded man who heals himself by embracing naif-ishness. It's no less alienating than his abusive magician routine. The film's biggest surprise is that we're expected to feel something besides impatience as Wonderstone, montage-ing himself back into shape, gapes like a child at the wonder of magic.

Outside a well-scripted magician sex scene, and some charming late-in-the-movie stage patter, Carell is never funny and human in the same moment. That's especially disappointing considering that there's much here for audiences to laugh at. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have been generous in the crafting of ridiculous magic acts. Buscemi is antsy yet beatific as the smarter, less charismatic Roy to Carell's Siegfried. Scenes of their act pre-crackup are funny enough, but one of a dejected Wonderstone attempting it solo is a comic marvel, evidence of what the rest of the movie might have been.

The supporting cast is all first-rate. Wilde is asked to do nothing more than be pretty and earnest and put-upon, but Jim Carrey turns up as a controlled grotesque, a self-abusing "magician" whose act is all about violations of his own body. Done up like a goonish Brad Pitt, Carrey applies his cartoon expressiveness to its most judicious ends in years. Also strong is James Gandolfini, as a casino owner with no time for bullshit.

It's notable these days when a big-screen studio comedy is as funny as a good episode of a smart show. Burt Wonderstone hits that mark at least — although Carell's on-stage mincing to Steve Miller's "Abracadabra" isn't a patch on Will Arnett's to "The Final Countdown" on Arrested Development. What was funniest about that was how much Arnettt's Gob needed everyone else to be into it; Carell's Wonderstone just presumes that we are into it already — a mistake shared by the filmmakers.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl