Last years re-release of Orson Wells’s F for Fake highlighted cinema’s long held fascination with magic. It’s a subject that comes in waves in Hollywood, loved, ignored and forgotten in decade-long loops, the thrill of the trick at times startling, at others, mind numbing. A few years ago The Prestige and The Illusionist were the players in that curious Hollywood game of releasing similar titles at similar times (see previous release dates for Armageddon and Deep Impact, Antz and A Bug’s Life) while it was the allure of magic that brought British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb to the silver screens for the first time with the undercooked and overlooked Magicians. The two industries have a shared interest in disbelief, manipulating the audience to believe the unbelievable and yet are rather uneasy bedfellows. Perhaps unsurprisingly so – the wonder of small-scale magic is hard to capture on camera, where even more smoke and mirrors add an extra layer of audience cynicism. Currently this problem is being challenged at the cinema’s by Now You See Me while magician comedy caper The Incredible Burt Wonderstone tackles the issue on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Failing to amaze or astound theatre audiences TIBW suffers from its familiar and ultimately stale narrative which no matter of starry cast members – Steve Carrel, Jim Carey and Steve Buscemi – can undo. Carrel takes the lead as the eponymous magician Burt Wonderstone, one half of a decade-long Vegas headlining double act The Incredible Burt and Anton. Buscemi lends his curious casting to the role of Anton Marvelton, childhood friend and showbiz partner to Wonderstone. The pair forged an early friendship through a mutually difficult school life and a desire to be ‘liked by everyone’, something, they decide, a career in magic can bring which it does alongside the extra perks of fame and fortune. We meet an industry worn pair on the verge of a breakdown – their famed friendship on the rocks and disappearing faster than audience members of their stale stage show.
Casting a shadow over their Siegfried and Roy tinged act is the new comedy king on the block, the raw self-styled street magician Steve Gray (a long haired Jim Carey). Representing the modern, shock and endurance based magic of David Blaine and Dynamo, his young, fresh act looms large over the Vegas duo making them appear out of date and obsolete. Burt’s ego dictates his reluctance to change, refusing to acknowledge the young upstart as a serious rival and also forcing out his lifelong partner in the process.
From here on in the film lumbers on to its predictable conclusion via pitfalls, redemption and sage advice from Alan Arkin’s ageing magician. It’s a film that once its plot is explained it takes little imagination to come up with an idea of how it plays out, and so it predictably does. Carrel’s Wonderstone feels indebted to the Will Ferrell man-children of any number of American comedies in the last decade. So large the spectre of Ferrell looms in fact, that Carrels performance comes across tinged with mimicry and faux outrage, never once lifting with convincing enthusiasm in the role. More disappointing is the lack of genuine funny moments throughout the length of the film. Carey’s Gray starts promisingly but is soon dragged into the laughless farce where each attempt at a gag is signposted early enough to make it impossible to take you by surprise. It’s a wonder what Buscemi found in the script to convince him to sign up, perhaps a willingness to follow John C Reily’s successful transition from indie to comedy.
Underlining it all is the ironic truth that TIBW is as stale and outdated as the act of the headlining magicians. Far from magic an unlikely to gain a wider audience after home release.