There is a trend in recent comedies that I find immensely grating. Many recent comedies (and I'm looking primarily at Will Ferrell here) tend to focus on a singularly selfish, awkward, and fecklessly oblivious jerkwads whose casual cruelty, racism, and/or sexism (the jerkwad is always male) is intended to be the fulcrum of their film's comedy. The audience, then, is not invited to sympathize with this jerkwad, but to laugh at them. If the jerkwad flirts with a woman, we're supposed to giggle at how uncomfortable the woman is and how dumb the man is. If he believes he is sexy, we are to laugh at how unsexy he is. Will Farrell has made millions taking off his shirt and baring his flesh for comedic purposes; how does Farrell actually bed women without them cracking up at this point? Occasionally an Adam Sandler may try to elicit sympathy for the central jerkwad, but these stabs at sympathy always ring hollow, as the jerkwad is rarely going to change, and we're asked to sympathize with a morally vacuumed monster (see That's My Boy – - actually, don't). You can call this flavor of comedy "The Cinema of Cruelty and Discomfort." Comedy through mockery and awkwardness. The kind of comedy that turns the audience into a bully. I know it's some people's up of tea. It's just not mine.
It was kind of a relief, then, to see that Don Scardino's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a vehicle for comedian Steve Carell, spent relatively little screentime devoted to these moments of awkwardness and casual cruelty. There are still plenty of cruel moments – I think we're intended to laugh at the goofy and dated magician costumes that Carell and his co-star Steve Buscemi wear – but eventually the film actually bothers to focus on its drama and characters. This isn't to say that the drama and characters are especially deep or riveting, but I prefer weepy and content human beings over the monstrous caricatures they could have been.
Carell plays the title character who, along with his partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) runs one of the longest-running magic shows on the Las Vegas strip. These two have been magic partners since childhood (we see them as children in an opening flashback) and are both greatly inspired by Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), a retired stage magic giant. As the film opens, however, we see that Burt and Anton have started to hate each other, that their act has become rote and uninspiring, and Burt only seems to live for his plush hotel-bound lifestyle and casual groupie sex that comes with waivers and contracts. When renegade street magician Steve Gray (a funny Jim Carrey) proves to be more popular, Burt and Anton are fired, and so begins the long road to weepy redemption and rediscovering the wonders of magic. Along the way, Burt is humbled by a string of ever-decreasing jobs, eventually leading to a stage at a retirement community, and an actual friendship/romance with his one-time assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), who he calls Nicole.
Although The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (somewhat disappointingly) doesn't feature too many legitimate on-screen magic tricks (all the tricks are achieved through editing and CGI – no magician, however adept, can hide a full-size bird inside a saltshaker), it's still very positive on magic, and seems to hold it in a legitimately high regard. The outfits of the magicians may be subtly mocked, but magic itself is never the butt of the joke. The filmmakers went a long way to make sure magic was still, well, magical. It would have been nice to see more actual tricks, and perhaps some cameos from some more actual magicians – David Copperfield makes an appearance of course, but whither Ricky Jay? – giving the film a bit more of a professional stamp. As it is, the film has an amateur's enthusiasm for old-school magic, and a general disregard for the “edgy” new magic of people like Criss Angel; Carrey's ripped, shirtless, Goth-rock weirdo is clearly modeled on Angel, and his stunts involve doing bodily harm to himself.
The comedians are all fine. Carrey is especially funny, and seems to be improvising most of his lines; he has the best line in the film by quoting a Radiohead lyric. Overall, the film is sweet and good-natured and periodically chuckle-worthy. The central problem with Wonderstone, however, actually stems from that good nature. So much of the film is devoted to story and character and redemption that you'll spend more time sympathizing with the character than you will actually laughing. As such, the ultimate product is a little insubstantial. Fun, sweet, pretty good, and kind of forgettable. It doesn't dazzle, but it refreshes. Sometimes a small sip of a cool drink on a hot day can be enough.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.