Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

"Sometimes the Magic Works...."
"Wanna See it Again?"

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  It is the secret to prestidigitation.  Do it over and over and over again, honing the skill, making it more fluid, perfecting the illusion, increasing the speed, so you leave the audience dazzled by the pixie dust of distraction.  Then, once perfected, you do it again and again and again in performance, producing a jaded hardening of the artistry, the audience becoming s revolving series of marks you hit over and over again.  You lose respect of the audience and the skills and the gig.  The magic goes away.

Repetition is the key to The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, too.  One of its major themes is the drudgery of performing the same tricks over and over and over again, a process that turns the titular magician (Steve Carell) into a zombie with a spray-tan, barely able to speak to his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) as they perform the umpteenth repetition of their standard Vegas act.  Not even the addition of a new assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde) can stop the ennui, as the self-absorbed Wonderstone keeps calling her "Nicole" for some reason.  Probably because he can, she looks more like a "Nicole" than a "Jane," and he doesn't care.  At all.  So, he always calls her "Nicole."  "Jane" she immediately corrects, but he doesn't get it.

Repetition is also the key to Burt Wonderstone's comedy.  They throw out that "Nicole"/"Jane" joke a half-dozen times throughout the movie, and a good many others, too, usually to expose the shallowness and perpetual myopia of the characters as well as the flatness of their learning curves.

That flatness, that lethargy or lack of magic, is the starting point of the character arcs.  Burt is at the top of his game, successful, bored, settled into the day-to-day—the romantic encounters he engineers (if you can call them romantic) are one-night stands he pulls from the audience, provides a quick tour of his pad, a complimentary memento arranged for the evening, the signing of a non-disclosure agreement, and it all ends when he pulls a disappearing act.  Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.  Except the magic.  It left a long time ago. 

Burt (Carell) and Anton (Buscemi)—Pure Magic

Because success isn't very funny, Burt and Anton stagnate, especially when there are newer, edgier, geekier magicians with reality shows—like the masochistic, egotistic Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) who bills himself as "the brain rapist." The owner of Bally's (James Gandolfini), where the two have performed to sell-out crowds for years, sees the attendance softening, and demands something more "street" than his regulars can provide, and so they get canned, split up, try to rebuild, crack up, and then the story can actually begin.  

As typical romantic comedies go, this one is by the numbers: Burt's career set-back is completely unprepared for, and he finds that without the safety net of Anton, and the routine of their act, that he can't start over, or reclaim his former glory, so before long he finds himself sinking to rock bottom (performing magic at an old folks home), where, by the prestidigitation of convenient screen-writing, he finds his magic mojo again in the form of Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), mentor and Obi-Wan Kenobi-figure who critiques Burt's work and attitude ("What, magic makes you feel 80 again?" cracks Burt).  Anybody knows, if they've taken a screenwriting class, or seen any Tom Cruise movie from the '70's-'80's knows how it will run in its course (success kills your soul, there's a rival/villain, and one must have a sage elder to find the proper path), but at least the thing maintains an entertainment value throughout and right up to the end.  Thanks to the mixture of the personalities—Carell, Buscemi, Wilde, Arkin (I'll see anything with him in it), and especially Carrey, who makes the most of his small screen-time—there's always a sprinkling of surprise, a detail, a quirk to appreciate among the over-arching familiarity of it.  There's something magical about that.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a rental.

No comments: