Carell and Carrey mage war
If mainstream culture is anything to go by, magicians are a comical bunch. They draw us in with practiced showmanship, impress us with a goofy party trick, and have a wonky, ostentatious taste in wardrobe. Made for a good comedy, aren’t they? At least that’s true for Burt Wonderstone. At best an onslaught of hilarity, its confirmation that movie-magic doesn’t necessarily begin and end with The Prestige. Jim Carrey specifically, in a sort-of-comeback, is on maniacal form. So why, like discovering the machinery behind the ol’ coin behind the ear, does the allure tend to vanish in a thick puff of smoke?
Burt’s a wealthy, world-renowned mage when we meet him, but life wasn’t always so swell. Childhood, to say the least, was brutal. No prizes for guessing that a love of sorcery made him somewhat of an easy target for the stick of bullies. From this rough patch came relief though, in the form of fellow magic-enthusiast, Anton (an unusually sympathetic Steve Buscemi) whose friendship sets the basis for a popular Vegas magic-act. That is, until Burt’s egotism and a new competitor leads to both bruising incident and an unmistakable rift in their relationship.
This partnership is the beating heart of Wonderstone, even if Carell’s unpleasant treatment of Buscemi makes him difficult to get behind initially. Carell simply hasn’t played a character this unlikable (or tanned) and now we know why. We’re running out of excuses to make for a man with the world, wealth and women all in his hands, and yet not a shred of care for those around him. Under the anchorage of here-and-there 30 Rock director Don Scardino, this is also nowhere near as smart as it needs to be. Sure, Jon Goldstein’s script isn’t short of moments that’ll have you snorting in hysterics. A magic-themed sex scene shows shades of the wit we know Scardino produces week-in-week-out with Liz Lemon and co. Yet, moments like these are criminally short, handfuls of scenes plod by with jokes that don’t work rehashed within an inch of their lives. Really, apart from some spot-on physical gags, the zinger-count is disappointingly low.
Fortunately, Scardino is graced with the kind of supporting cast that when given lame writing can make lame-onade. Alan Arkin is great as a seminal-conjurer-turned-senior-citizen, and so is Olivia Wilde as the headstrong magicians assistant looking to break out in a male-dominated business. The real revelation here is Carrey as mystical street magician Steve Gray, who takes magic and turns it into something truly ugly. And still it’s he that we can’t take our eyes off as he commits increasingly deranged acts of bodily harm, all in the name of magic.
It’s always fun to see Carrey play such nutty characters, and he nails every scene he’s in here. Wonderstone is funny, sometimes uncontrollably so. What it lacks is the necessary smarts of 30 Rock, which you’d have to say, could’ve turned this pleasurable box of tricks into movie magic.